Thailand and Saudi Arabia have agreed to normalize diplomatic ties and work toward mending a decades-old rift, with analysts and officials saying the thaw will benefit the Thais economically and allow Riyadh to cultivate new non-Muslim allies.
In a joint statement released by the Thai foreign ministry Wednesday, the two countries announced the breakthrough. It happened as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha became the first Thai leader to visit Saudi Arabia in more than 30 years. The bilateral relationship froze after a Thai janitor stole millions of dollars’ worth of jewels from a Riyadh place in 1989, and a string of unsolved murders followed within months of the heist.
“[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 by exploring investment and other opportunities,” it added.
Prayuth’s visit to Riyadh on Tuesday came 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.
At the end of their meeting, the two countries also agreed to appoint ambassadors “in the near future,” the statement said.
“[Thai Foreign Minister] Don Pramudwinai affirmed that we will appoint an ambassador as soon as possible,” Tanee Sangrat, a spokesman for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in Bangkok on Wednesday.
Tanee said labor export was “one of the key issues” that the two governments focused on during Prayuth’s visit.
“Saudi Arabia informed us it wants 8 million skilled workers,” Tanee said.
“It is a good opportunity for Thai workers in the services sector, as well as hotel, health, and major constructions.
Saudi Arabia was once a major destination for Thai workers.
“Before diplomatic ties were degraded, there used to be 300,000 workers [in Saudi Arabia, who] generated nine billion baht,” Tanee said, adding that Riyadh was planning to frame an agreement on labor within two months.
Riyadh had restricted travel between the two countries, impacting tourism and remittances by migrant workers. Thailand now hopes to benefit in the areas of trade and tourism.
For instance, Saudia, Saudi Arabia’s national airline, said on Wednesday that direct flights to Thailand would begin this coming May.
“Explore Thailand – The Land of Culture,” said the advertisement posted on Twitter.
Saudi Arabia stands to gain as well through restoring its ties with Thailand, said Haneef Salam, a researcher at the Center for Ethnic Studies and Development at Chiang Mai University.
“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 BenarNews.
He was referring to an international outcry that followed the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at 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.
Saudi Arabia’s strategy is evident “from the thousands of scholarships Saudi Arabia is giving away to non-Muslim countries, including Thailand,” he added.
Ahead of Prayuth’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Salman, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told local media that the Thai PM’s visit was a result of six years of behind-the-scenes work.
“This historic breakthrough is a result of long-term efforts on many levels from both sides to restore mutual trust and friendly relations,” the joint statement also said.
The diplomatic rift began after a Thai-born palace worker, Kriangkrai Techamong allegedly stole jewels from the home of a Saudi prince in August 1989.
The stolen precious stones included a rare 50-carat blue diamond, which authorities never recovered.
In early 1990, months after the heist, two Saudi diplomats and a telex operator assigned to Riyadh’s embassy in Bangkok were killed in separate murders in the Thai capital. A Saudi businessman sent by Riyadh to Thailand to investigate the jewelry theft disappeared soon after, deepening tensions between the two kingdoms.
The killings and the businessman’s disappearance remain unsolved.
According to the joint statement, Prayuth “expressed his sincere regrets for the tragic cases that took place in Thailand between 1989 [and] 1990.”
Kriangkrai was arrested in 1990 and confessed to his crime. Thai police returned some of the jewels. However, Saudi officials claimed most were fakes. There have been allegations that senior Thai officials took the stolen gems.
The Thai janitor, who had sold most of the gems before his arrest, was sentenced to three years in jail. He became a monk in 2016.
Separately 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.
Prayuth on Tuesday “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,” the statement said.
“He also reaffirmed Thailand’s commitment to providing appropriate security to members of the mission of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Bangkok.”
Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok and Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai contributed to this report.