Thai PM Looks to Thaw Ties With Saudis After Long Diplomatic Lull

Kunnawut Boonreak and Nontarat Phaicharoen
2022.01.24
Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Bangkok
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Thai PM Looks to Thaw Ties With Saudis After Long Diplomatic Lull Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha attends a groundbreaking ceremony for a monument to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at a memorial park in Bangkok, Dec. 5, 2021.
AFP

Prayuth Chan-o-cha this week will become the first Thai prime minister to visit Saudi Arabia in decades, in an effort to “restore trust” in bilateral ties that chilled after a Thai janitor pulled off a major jewel heist from a Riyadh palace 32 years ago, a government spokesman said Monday.  

The August 1989 theft of the U.S. $20 million in jewels included a 50-carat blue diamond, which authorities never recovered and remains at the heart of the diplomatic rift. 

Prayuth “is honored” by the invitation from Saudi Arabia, Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, a spokesman at the prime minister’s office, told a press conference in Bangkok.  

“This will be the first high-level visit between the two countries in three decades,” Thanakorn said.  

“This visit will help restore trust and improve the relations between the nations and the people.” 

In early 1990, months after the heist, two Saudi diplomats and a telex operator assigned to Riyadh’s embassy in Bangkok were killed in the Thai capital and a Saudi businessman sent by Riyadh to Thailand to investigate the jewelry theft disappeared, deepening tensions between the two kingdoms. The killings and the businessman’s disappearance remain unsolved.  

Prayuth’s two-day visit, scheduled to start on Tuesday, comes at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s first deputy prime minister, who is considered the Saudi kingdom’s de facto ruler.  

“This is wonderful news to receive an invitation to visit for the first time in 30 years,” Thanakorn said. 

Saudi Arabia said the visit marked an effort “to strengthen joint relations and build bridges of communication with all countries worldwide,” according to a Saudi government statement published by the state news agency. 

“The visit comes after consultations that resulted in a convergence of views on many issues of common concern,” the statement said. 

Analyst: Visit will benefit Thailand

Thailand stands to gain from Prayuth’s trip to Saudi Arabia, an analyst told BenarNews. 

Prayuth and Salman will talk about the economy and trade, visas for Thai migrant workers, and increasing the number of Thai Muslims going to the Saudi kingdom for religious pilgrimages, said Salai Bawi, a political analyst at Chiang Mai University. 

“This effort to improve bilateral relations will definitely benefit Thailand. There are far fewer Thai workers in Saudi Arabia, which might pick up after this meeting,” Salai said. 

“Another issue is the limited number of Muslims allowed to visit Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah,” Salai said. 

According to Sarawut Aree, an academic with the Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University, 200,000 Thai laborers worked in Saudi Arabia before 1989. The number has since decreased to only a few thousand. 

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has not sent an ambassador to Thailand for decades. 

Riyadh has also restricted travel between the two countries, impacting tourism and remittances by migrant workers. 

The Thai Ministry of Commerce says the Southeast Asian country has imported crude oil and biochemicals from Saudi Arabia, while exporting rice, seafood and auto parts. 

But things may be changing, according to Sarawut. 

Saudi Arabia “wants to create a new image among the global community and Thailand wants to fix the relationship because it has good relations with all countries in the Muslim world, except Saudi Arabia,” Sarawut said in a blog post published in 2020. 

Normalizing Saudi-Thai relations to pre-1989 levels “is not impossible, but it will take time,” Chiang Mai University’s Salai said. 

According to Sarawut, Thai-Saudi ties plummeted after the Thai police failed to find and return most of the jewels allegedly stolen by Thai-born palace worker Kriangkrai Techamong. 

Thailand, in particular, could not recover the most precious stone, the stolen blue diamond. 

Kriangkrai was arrested in 1990 and confessed to his crime, Thai authorities had said. A few of the stolen jewels were found and returned. 

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, alleged that of the jewels returned, some diamonds were not real. 

“The relationship worsened when the Saudis received what they thought were fake diamonds,” Sarawut said in his blog, adding that the killings of the Saudi diplomats only exacerbated deteriorating relations. 

In 2014, a Thai court dismissed the case against five men, including a senior Thai policeman, who were accused of involvement in the Saudi businessman’s disappearance in 1990. 

Kriangkrai, who had sold most of the gems before his arrest, was sentenced to three years in jail. He became a monk in 2016.

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