Thai PM to visit Saudi Arabia as diplomatic relations thaw

First high-level visit since relations soured in the wake of a 1989 theft of $20m worth of jewels from a Saudi prince by a Thai janitor.

Composite photo showing Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut and Saudi Crown Prince MBS
Saudi Arabia has not sent an ambassador to Thailand for decades and restricts travel between the countries [AP Photo]

Thailand’s prime minister will visit Saudi Arabia next week in what will be the first high-level meeting between the two countries since a diplomatic row over a jewellery theft nearly 30 years ago.

Saudi Arabia downgraded its diplomatic relations with Bangkok following the theft in 1989 of about $20m worth of jewels by a Thai janitor working in the palace of a Saudi prince. The theft triggered a feud between the countries dubbed the “Blue Diamond Affair” that has yet to be resolved.

Thai police later returned some of the jewels but Saudi officials claimed most were fake, while the whereabouts of the most precious gem – a rare 50-carat blue diamond – remains unknown.

The invitation to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for a two-day visit beginning Tuesday was issued by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Thai government said in a statement.

“This visit is the first visit by a head of government between the two countries in more than 30 years,” the statement said.

Prayut will meet MBS “to strengthen and promote bilateral relations”, it added.

A statement by the Saudi foreign ministry said the visit “comes amid consultations that led to bringing views closer on issues of common interest”.

The visit is aimed at coordinating on those issues, it said, without elaborating.

Saudi Arabia has long accused Thai police of bungling their investigation into the theft, with allegations that the stolen gems were snapped up by senior officers.

The Blue Diamond Affair remains one of Thailand’s biggest unsolved mysteries and was followed by a bloody trail of destruction that saw some of Thailand’s top police generals implicated.

A year after the theft, three Saudi diplomats in Thailand were killed in three separate assassinations in a single night.

Riyadh sent a Saudi businessman, Mohammad al-Ruwaili, to investigate but he disappeared in Bangkok a month later.

In 2014, due to a lack of evidence, a case was dropped against five men, including a senior Thai policeman, accused of involvement in al-Ruwaili’s murder.

Saudi Arabia has not sent an ambassador to Thailand for decades and restricts travel between the countries.

Thailand has been eager to normalise ties with the oil-rich kingdom after the spat that has cost billions of dollars in two-way trade and tourism revenues and the loss of jobs to tens of thousands of Thai migrant workers.

Kriangkrai served five years in jail over the jewel theft and sold most of the gems before his arrest. He then became a monk in 2016.

He said he turned to religion in an attempt to escape bad karma.

Source: News Agencies