A special relationship? Extravagant gifts given to the US by the Middle East

The US administration accepts gifts worth millions of dollars from GCC countries every year.

Peter Iantorno December 15, 2015

What do you buy for the man who has everything? It’s a question that is pondered by many, but none more so than Middle Eastern dignitaries visiting the United States with a gift for US President Barack Obama.

It can’t be easy picking a token gesture for the US Commander-in-Chief, but that hasn’t stopped the steady stream of gifts from the Gulf entering the White House.

According to a recently released official US Department of state document, the US administration received around $3 million worth of gifts from the six GCC countries in 2014 alone, representing almost 86 per cent of all official gifts received last year.

The most generous country by far was Saudi Arabia, which gave gifts with a total value of more than $2.5 million, including a $780,000 emerald and diamond jewellery set containing a ring, earrings, bracelet and necklace, given to Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

John and Teresa Kerry.jpg US Secretary of State John Kerry's wife Teresa was the lucky recipient of a $780,000 jewellery set.

The next highest giver in 2014 was Qatar, with a total of just under $185,000 worth of presents, including a gold and silver model of a ship and a Cartier bracelet. The UAE is just behind that total with just short of $170,000 worth of gifts given, then there’s a considerable jump down to the $40,000 worth of gifts the US received from Oman.

A $1,000 pair of pearl earrings contributed to Bahrain’s total of $1,965 worth of gifts, while a $1,150 Baume & Mercier watch made up the majority of Kuwait’s $1,539 total gifts to the US.

While Saudi Arabia’s extravagant $2.5 million contribution distorts the figures somewhat, there are also plenty of gifts given to the US from non-GCC countries that make for rather interesting reading.

For example, Barack Obama accepted a $615 bottle of cognac from the Moldovan Prime Minister in March 2014, while the president was lucky enough to receive six boxes of dates and 12 bottles of wine with an estimated value of more than $500 from Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali.

Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali.jpg Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali.

Clearly gift-giving is part and parcel of diplomatic relations, but in a world where even the slightest hint of an unofficial deal can result in allegations of corruption, America's justification for accepting gifts must come under scrutiny.

The US government makes it clear that all gifts are stored in its National Archives and Record Administration, and the justification given for accepting the gifts is the same for every entry on the official document: “Non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to the donor and US Government”.

Fair enough, perhaps, but what of the perishable items such as Algerian Ambassador Baali’s dates and wine and the Moldovan Prime Minister’s cognac? Why, they are “handled according to Secret Service protocol,” of course. We can only imagine what that means…