In 2016, Bahraini former Prime Minister late Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman led mediation efforts to mend the broken ties between Saudi Arabia and Thailand since 1990. He managed to hold an official meeting between the then-Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubair and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the first of its kind in three decades. Since then, talks between the two countries continued and led to a historic visit of the Thai Prime Minister in the end of January.
Sheikh Khalifa (1935-2020) used to have good relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Thailand. Unfortunately, he passed away before he witnessed the full restoration of diplomatic ties between the two kingdoms after Prime Minister Chan-o-cha led the first visit of a high-ranking Thai official since the eruption of the so-called “Blue Diamond Crisis”.
The crisis cost the downgrading of diplomatic relationships, the loss of multi-billion investments and the absence of Thailand from Saudi touristic destination list as the Saudi authorities prevented Saudis from traveling to Thailand with very few exceptions. Saudi Arabia used to be one of the biggest markets for Thai labor before the crisis.
We shed the light on the Blue Diamond Crisis and what happened in 1989 and 1990, and how Chan-o-cha’s visit to the Kingdom can boost the bilateral relations on different levels.
Blue Diamond Crisis
In 1989, Kriangkrai Techamong, a Thai gardener at late Prince Faisal bin Fahad’s royal palace, stole around 30 kg of jewels and sent the loot by regular mail to his homeland before fleeing Saudi Arabia. The rarest and most precious jewel was a blue diamond.
Following the discovery of the theft and Thai attempts to manipulate the investigations due to suspicion of official involvement in the case, four Saudi diplomats, including Saleh Al Malki, Consul General, Abdullah Al Basri, Charge d’Affaires, and attaches Ahmad Al Saif and Fahad Al Bahili, were assassinated. Thai authorities returned the stolen jewelry, but it was discovered that the items were fake. Saudi businessman, Mohammed Al Ruweili was sent from Saudi Arabia to assess the jewels, but he was killed. Saudi authorities believed Thai police officers were involved. In 2014, a Thai court cleared five officers, who were charged in the killing of Al Ruweili, due to lack of evidence.
The consequences of the series of assassinations impacted Saudi-Thai relations in a negative way. The number of Thai expats has decreased from around 300,000 to less than 10,000 currently. Direct flights were halted between the two countries. Diplomatic ties were downgraded to charge d’affaire level.
Trade Exchange and Easing Restrictions
Despite the diplomatic strain between the two countries since 1990, the trade exchange continued. It is interesting to know that Thailand was among the top 15 destinations of Saudi exports and imports between 2010 and 2019 according to the figures and numbers of the Saudi General Authority of Statistics.
Abdul Aziz Ali, a Saudi businessman, told Majalla, “In the past, I had to justify my business trips to Thailand to the Saudi Authorities not to be banned from traveling at all. I had to show my commercial register and other commercial documents. Visiting Thailand used to be punishable by Saudi laws. Now, things much better and I can go for business or leisure freely”.
The normalization will provide investment opportunities for Saudi companies in Thailand, which is expected to be among the top 10 destinations for Saudi trade exchange according to business experts.
It is good to note that after 1990, Saudi authorities banned citizens from traveling to Thailand except for commercial or medical purposes only. Saudi travelers had to show evidence on the purpose of traveling. However, restrictions were eased in the past few years. But Saudis preferred other destinations in Southeast Asia like Malaysia or Indonesia.
Tourism and Labor
Saudi tourists are among the biggest spenders in the world. That’s why more countries are applying visa-free or visa on arrival systems to Saudis. The travel ban is completely lifted and Saudi tourists can flock to Thailand freely.
“I used to visit Thailand in the 1970’s and 1980’s with my parents. It is a beautiful, green country with a smile on people’s faces. I am excited to visit Thailand again with my family after three decades”, said Ahmed Abdu, a Saudi retired employee.
Thailand is famous for medical tourism. This will give more options for Saudis to get medical services at competitive prices.
Thai labor will be allowed to the Kingdom after the normalization between the two countries. Saudi Arabia is expected to issue tens of thousands of work visas for Thai skilled workers, a matter that enriches the Saudi labor market with more options.
Starting next May, Saudi Arabian Airlines, a government-owned airline company, is going to launch its flights to Thailand. Thai Airways, the biggest Thai airline company, is expected to do the same.
“Merchants and patients used travel through the airports of neighboring GCC airports. Travelers from Saudi Arabia can now travel directly to Thailand and vice versa. Travel lovers are delighted with the new destination,” concluded Abdu.