Former aide Ben Rhodes says gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were lavished by the Saudis ahead of Cairo speech
Saudi Arabia gave White House aides jewellery worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in large suitcases, according to Ben Rhodes, former speechwriter and deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration.
In his memoir The World As It Is, published on Tuesday, Rhodes recounts a trip to Saudi Arabia in June 2009 soon after Barack Obama became president.
He says on arrival he and other US officials were taken to housing units in a compound owned by the monarchy in the desert.
“When I opened the door to my unit, I found a large suitcase,” Rhodes recounts. “Inside were jewels.”
The trip to Saudi Arabia was the beginning of Obama’s first tour of the Middle East as president, and preceded his famous Cairo speech which he intended as a message to the Muslim world.
Rhodes says at first he thought the bagged treasure was a bribe, to influence him as he wrote Obama’s speech.
However, he soon learned he was not the only member of the delegation to be lavished with such expense.
'No one kept them that I recall'
- Ben Rhodes
“We all got suitcases full of jewels,” the former aide told the Guardian newspaper.
“We all gave them to the state protocol office who handles gifts. You have the option to buy the gifts, but given the price – I don’t remember what it was but it was tens of thousands, I believe – no one kept them that I recall.”
The State Department’s register notes the Saudis gave Rhodes “one pair of silver cufflinks, one male watch, one female watch, one silver pen, and one diamond jewellery set including earrings, a ring, and a bracelet, presented in a green leather case".
It justifies the acceptance of such gifts by saying “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to [the] donor and US government”.
'Non-acceptance would cause embarrassment'
- US State Department
While the value of the hoard given to Rhodes is estimated by the State Department to be $5,405, the contents of the green leather cases given to other officials were far more precious.
The gifts given to aide Marvin Nicholson were valued at $18,580, meanwhile Peter Rundlet, deputy assistant to the president and deputy staff secretary to Obama, was given $12,560 worth of jewellery.
Eleven other White House officials were given gift sets by the Saudi government.
The president and his wife, Michelle, were not spared expensive gifts either.
The then Saudi king, Abdullah, gave the Obamas and their daughters almost $190,000 worth of gifts.
A diamond and ruby jewellery set given to Michelle Obama was valued at $132,000 alone.