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Thailand and Saudi Arabia normalize diplomatic relations

Thailand and Saudi Arabia have decided to restore diplomatic relations and work toward repairing a decades-old conflict, with analysts and officials claiming that the thaw will benefit Thais economically while also allowing Riyadh to recruit new non-Muslim partners.

Thailand and Saudi Arabia declared the breakthrough in a joint statement made by the Thai foreign ministry on Wednesday. It came as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha became the first Thai prime minister to take a trip to Saudi Arabia in more than 30 years.

After a Thai janitor stole millions of dollars’ worth of jewels from a Riyadh location in 1989, the bilateral relationship froze, and a succession of unexplained killings followed within months of the crime.

Thailand and Saudi Arabia determined to resolve pending issues

“[T]he two sides agreed to fully normalize their diplomatic relations,” according to the joint statement, which also said that “they reaffirmed their mutual determination to resolve all pending issues between Thailand and Saudi Arabia.”  

“The two sides discussed means and ways to strengthen and enhance economic and trade relations between the two Kingdoms [of Thailand and Saudi Arabia] by exploring investment and other opportunities,” it added.

Prayuth’s journey to Riyadh on Tuesday was at the request of Saudi Arabia’s first deputy prime minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the country’s de facto ruler.

Thailand and Saudi Arabia also agreed to nominate ambassadors “in the near future” at the conclusion of their meeting, according to the statement.

“[Thai Foreign Minister] Don Pramudwinai affirmed that we will appoint an ambassador as soon as possible,” said Tanee Sangrat, a spokesman for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Wednesday.

Thailand and Saudi Arabia normalize diplomatic relations: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is welcomed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is welcomed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Tanee stated that labor export was “one of the key issues” discussed by the two governments of Thailand and Saudi Arabia during Prayuth’s visit.

“Saudi Arabia informed us it wants 8 million skilled workers,” Tanee explained.

It is an excellent chance for Thai employees in the service industry, as well as in the hotel, health, and big construction industries.

Saudi Arabia used to be a popular location for Thai laborers.

“Before diplomatic ties were degraded, there used to be 300,000 workers [in Saudi Arabia, who] generated nine billion baht,” Tanee added, adding that Riyadh planned to negotiate a labor deal within two months.

Riyadh has imposed travel restrictions between Thailand and Saudi Arabia, affecting tourism and migrant worker remittances. Thailand now wants to gain from commercial and tourist opportunities.

Saudia, the official airline of Saudi Arabia, said on Wednesday that direct flights to Thailand will begin in May.

“Explore Thailand – The Land of Culture,” claimed the Twitter advertising.

According to Haneef Salam, a scholar at Chiang Mai University’s Center for Ethnic Studies and Development, Saudi Arabia stands to benefit as well by reestablishing connections with Thailand.

“Saudi Arabia is trying to lessen its dependence on the United States for the past 4-5 years, due to its tumultuous relationship,” Haneef told reporters.

He was alluding to the international outrage that erupted in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi inside Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2019.

“It’s likely the Saudi royalty is feeling insecure, and so it is expanding relationship with countries it once shunned, and is ready to cooperate with other countries so that it does not have to completely depend on the U.S.,” Haneef said.

“[T]housands of scholarships Saudi Arabia is giving away to non-Muslim countries, including Thailand,” he continued, demonstrating the kingdom’s goal.

History behind rift between Thailand and Saudi Arabia

Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told local media ahead of Prayuth’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that the Thai PM’s visit was the product of six years of behind-the-scenes labor.

“This historic breakthrough is a result of long-term efforts on many levels from both sides to restore mutual trust and friendly relations,” according to the joint statement.

The diplomatic conflict began in August 1989, when a Thai-born palace servant named Kriangkrai Techamong reportedly stole valuables from the residence of a Saudi royal in what has been dubbed as “the blue diamond affair.”

A rare 50-carat blue diamond was among the stolen expensive stones, which officials never recovered.

Two Saudi diplomats and a telex operator attached to Riyadh’s embassy in Bangkok were assassinated in separate killings in Bangkok in early 1990, months after the crime. Riyadh dispatched a Saudi businessman to Thailand to investigate the jewelry theft, but he vanished soon after, escalating tensions between Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

The murders and the disappearance of the businessman remain unexplained.

Prayuth “expressed his sincere regrets for the tragic cases that took place in Thailand between 1989 [and] 1990,” according to the joint statement.

Kriangkrai was apprehended and confessed to his crime in 1990. Some of the diamonds were returned by Thai police. Saudi officials, on the other hand, stated that the majority of them were forgeries. There have been suspicions that the stolen diamonds were taken by high Thai authorities.

Thai police displays some of the jewelries they recovered, with  Kriangkrai Techamong in handcuffs on the right in 1990, the heist that led to rift between Thailand and Saudi Arabia.
Thai police displays some of the jewelries they recovered, with Kriangkrai Techamong in handcuffs on the right in 1990, the heist that led to rift between Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

The Thai janitor, who had sold the majority of the jewels before his arrest, was sentenced to three years in prison. In 2016, he became a monk.

Separately, in 2014, a Thai court dropped the case against five persons, including a senior Thai police officer, suspected of complicity in the abduction of a Saudi businessman in 1990.

According to the statement, Prayuth “reaffirmed that Thailand had exerted utmost efforts to resolve the cases and that it stands ready to bring the cases to the consideration of the competent Thai authorities if new well-founded evidence relating to the cases should emerge.”

“He also reaffirmed Thailand’s commitment to providing appropriate security to members of the mission of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Bangkok.”

Flights between Thailand and Saudi Arabia to resume

Saudi Arabian Airlines stated that it will restart direct flights to Thailand in May.

The statement comes after Saudi Arabia and Thailand agreed to strengthen diplomatic relations to ambassadorial status, as well as expand economic cooperation and look into joint investment opportunities.

The bilateral agreements were inked during Thailand’s Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Prayut Chan-ocha’s official visit to Saudi Arabia, which was hosted by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense. On Thursday, Chan-Ocha will end his three-day tour.

Related to the matter, Ajlan Al-Ajlan, the president of the Federation of Saudi Chambers (FSC), said: “The visit comes within the framework of strengthening bilateral relations, consultation, coordination and exchanging views on a number of regional and global issues, based on the Kingdom’s keenness to build distinguished relations with all countries of the world. This also reflects the mutual appreciation between leaders of [Thailand and Saudi Arabia] and their keenness to strengthen bonds of friendship and joint cooperation.”

Saudi Arabian Airlines to resume flights between Thailand and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabian Airlines to resume flights to and from Thailand.

Al-Ajlan stated that the Kingdom understands the value of political and economic cooperation with countries throughout the world, particularly those in the region. He stressed that this is at the heart of the aims of Vision 2030, since the Vision focuses on the Kingdom’s economic and commercial partnerships with other Asian nations, as well as promoting investments to serve common interests.

Thailand’s products are expected to become more competitive in the Saudi market

Saudi investors anticipate an improvement in the competitiveness of rice prices and the growth of the labor market as a result of the visit. In the agricultural and mining industries, it will also lead to new possibilities and products.

According to Ahmed al-Muhaidib, CEO of Mayar Foods, the Thai prime minister’s visit will promote trade interaction between Thailand and Saudi Arabia, resulting in additional possibilities and goods in the agricultural and mining industries.

He stated that the increasing trade exchanges will boost competitiveness in a variety of industries, including rice imports, by providing more options at lower rates.

According to Muhaidib, Thai rice has a 3.2 percent market share in Saudi Arabia, equivalent to more than 11 thousand tons of rice, but this is projected to grow and reach a bigger number of rice fields.

The CEO expects that this will be evident in the volume of rice imported from Thailand to suit the Saudi market’s demands.

Muhaidib emphasized that Prayut’s visit will assist to activate and to strengthen the roles of attachés and chambers of commerce in both nations in order to develop commercial activity between them.

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