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In the run-up to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, a reader sent us a Facebook meme that addressed a previous Obama visit to the kingdom.
The meme features a pair of photographs of Obama, in what appears to be a Saudi palace, receiving an elaborate medal and necklace over his head. The text says, "Unconstitutional!!! Accepting an Islamic order and gold medal, 2/2011."
The text of the meme goes on to quote the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9: "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State."
We wondered whether Obama had received an honor from the Saudis, and if so, whether his acceptance of an "Islamic order and gold medal" was "unconstitutional."
After a bit of digging, we discovered that the meme was referring to something that happened in June 2009 -- not February 2011, as the meme had said. It involved the awarding of the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, which is considered Saudi Arabia’s highest honor. It’s named for the first monarch of Saudi Arabia, also known as Ibn Saud. (The Saudi Embassy didn’t return an inquiry for this article.)
We should also note here that, even though the meme has a distinct anti-Obama tone, President George W. Bush also received the same award in January 2008. After the award was placed around Bush's neck, the Associated Press reported, the president and King Abdullah "exchanged the region's traditional double kiss. ‘I am honored,’ Bush said."
So, partisans beware: Whatever truth we find for Obama, the same will go for Bush.
What does the Constitution say?
A look at the Constitution confirms that the meme correctly relays the passage, known as the "emoluments clause."
The framers included the clause because it signaled an end to hereditary leadership. Not only would the United States avoid granting titles of nobility itself, it would also prevent its leaders from accepting them from other countries.
Under the emoluments clause, the president clearly qualifies as a "person holding any Office of Profit or Trust." And in this case he certainly received something "from any King, Prince, or foreign State."
So the key question is this: Does the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit qualify under one or more of the following categories. Is it a present? An emolument? An office? A title?
We can quickly rule out "office." But the medallion is certainly a "present." Whether it’s an emolument (that is, a "gain from employment or position") or a title is a bit more up for grabs.
Was it a "present"?
Gifts -- tangible objects of more than trivial value -- are exchanged often in diplomacy, and there’s a well-established system for handling them. The portion of U.S. law known as 5 USC § 7342 ("Receipt and disposition of foreign gifts and decorations") sets out the conditions under which foreign gifts can be accepted.
Essentially, a gift from a foreign country or foreign leader can be accepted on behalf of the United States, as long as it is handed over to an appropriate arm of the federal government, typically the General Services Administration or the National Archives. Often, these gifts find their way to presidential libraries, where the public can view them. The point is that they are property of the government, not the individual recipient.
By passing this statute, Congress has essentially offered blanket consent for such acquisitions, without having to consider each one in a separate act. In the Jan. 18, 2011, edition of the Federal Register, the Obama administration officially disclosed the gift (a "large gold medallion with the Royal seal in a green leather display box" from "Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia") and confirmed its disposition to the National Archives.
So the medallion as a "present" appears to pose no constitutional problems.
Was it an "emolument" or a "title"?
The answer to this question is murkier.
On the one hand, J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit "is more than a mere medal. It confers an order, as indicated by its name, even if most people don’t take such things as seriously anymore."
When King Saud created the order in the 1950s, Pham said, it was "modeled after the various orders of chivalry awarded by European royal houses," such as the United Kingdom’s Most Honorable Order of the Bath and Spain’s Order of Isabella the Catholic.
Pham said these orders, both Saudi and European, "are differentiated from medals awarded for military service or civilian achievement. The latter are properly decorations, while the former confer membership, or honorary membership, in a class of individuals which, in former days, would have been referred to as having raised the recipient to the nobility if he or she did not already belong to it."
In a 2009 Washington Post op-ed, Pham and Chapman University law professor Ronald Rotunda argued that "Washington, Madison and Hamilton would have clearly understood that the Abdul Aziz Order falls under the same ban they had in mind for any public officials coveting awards made under the honors system of the British monarchy."
Other experts, however, say the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit is more accurately considered an award for civilian achievement, not a grant of nobility.
"All countries have decorations or honors they bestow on both their own citizens and foreigners, usually in recognition of some deed or act, or in the case of foreigners, simply an expression of gratitude for their contribution to the good relations between the two countries," said Edward W. Gnehm Jr., a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. "Many ambassadors receive similar medals or honors when they are leaving a post. They are certainly not a title, office or emolument."
The ultimate argument against the order conferring a title stems from the specifics of how the Saudi royal family operates.
"It is not a title of nobility, that is for sure," said F. Gregory Gause III, a Middle East specialist at the University of Vermont. "There is only one way into the ‘nobility’ in Saudi Arabia, and that is to be a member of the Al Saud family." The award, he said, is one "symbolizing achievement."
Even Pham, who believes it’s fairer to say that acceptance into the order amounts to a title, agrees that the Facebook meme doesn’t describe the situation entirely accurately. Notably, he said, the meme is wrong to say that it’s an "Islamic order."
"It is in fact open to non-Muslims, whereas the Saudi Collar of al-Badr is limited to Muslims," Pham said.
The meme says Obama's acceptance of an "Islamic order and gold medal" was "unconstitutional." Experts agree that Obama’s acceptance of the medallion and collar -- and their transferral to the National Archives -- is entirely constitutional, since the administration followed the longstanding rules on gifts set up by congressional statute. Experts are more divided, however, on whether acceptance of the medallion amounts to acceptance of a foreign title. Meanwhile, the meme errs in calling it an "Islamic order." On balance, we rate the claim Mostly False.
Facebook meme, received by PolitiFact on March 27, 2014
Heritage Foundation, "The Heritage Guide to The Constitution: Emoluments Clause," accessed April 1, 2014
Associated Press, "Bush Visits Saudi Arabia for Talks With King Abdullah," Jan. 14, 2008
Reuters, "Obama’s ties with Saudi Arabia? Solid gold," June 3, 2009
Congressional Research Service, "Gifts to the President of the United States," Aug. 16, 2012
United States Code, 5 USC § 7342, accessed April 1, 2014
U.S. Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, "Applicability of the Emoluments Clause and the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act to the President's Receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize," Dec. 7, 2009
New York Times, "Obama Offers Assurance to Saudis on Syria Stance," March 28, 2014
Ronald D. Rotunda and J. Peter Pham, "Obama Barred Constitutionally From Accepting Nobel" (Washington Post op-ed), Oct. 16, 2009
Email interview with J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, March 31, 2014
Email interview with David Forte, Cleveland State University law professor, March 28, 2014
Email interview with Robert J. Delahunty, University of St. Thomas law professor, March 28, 2014
Email interview with Saikrishna Bangalore Prakash, University of Virginia law professor, March 28, 2014
Email interview with Edward W. Gnehm, Jr., professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, March 31, 2014
Email interview with Kristin Smith Diwan, Middle East politics professor at American University, March 31, 2014
Email interview with F. Gregory Gause III, Middle East specialist at the University of Vermont, March 31, 2014
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