Saudi Arabia and Thailand resume relations after three decades. The bilateral crisis began with a spectacular heist. Among other things, a rare jewel disappeared.
The strange chain of circumstances is still in the dark – and there is still no trace of the diamonds. But when the Thai prime minister set foot on Saudi soil, the signs were for reconciliation – and probably for oblivion. On Tuesday, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman received Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the opulent Yamama Palace, where they discussed the resumption of bilateral relations. Soon both countries will send ambassadors, Saudi Airlines will start flights to the vacation destination Thailand.
The Saudis have kept diplomatic contacts with Bangkok on the back burner since 1989 – a spectacular heist that year had led to a series of events that still raise questions. At that time a Thai janitor had robbed the Saudi prince Faisal. Jewels worth 20 million dollars disappeared among other things in a vacuum cleaner bag that the janitor carried through the palace corridors.
Among all the dust was also a fabulous 50-carat blue diamond. Prince Faisal was on vacation with his family at the time – and the janitor, who had access to all the rooms, knew it. The Saudi prince was on the road for months.
Vanished without a trace
The janitor had the jewels shipped unnoticed to Thailand, then he too left Riyadh. But in his homeland, the northern province of Lampang, he could hardly sell the stones; he literally flogged them, as investigations later revealed. Thai police investigated the janitor, and after what appeared to be a zealous investigation, the lieutenant general in charge of the case flew to Riyadh to return the stolen jewels.
Only – at least that’s what the Saudis say – the man brought back only a fraction of the loot. The rest was fake junk, and where was the blue diamond anyway??
In Bangkok’s high society, meanwhile, rumor had it that the wives of various high-ranking officials had been spotted with jewels that looked remarkably like the loot from Riyadh. Mohammed al-Ruwaili, a friend of the Saudi rulers and often in Thailand on business, took matters into his own hands. But only a short time after the start of his investigation, al-Ruwaili disappeared without a trace in February 1990.
Just three years ago, a court finally acquitted five police officers suspected of kidnapping, extorting and then burning al-Ruwaili in the middle of Bangkok. For the judges, there was not enough evidence, the main witness went into hiding, and a ring he found that allegedly belonged to al-Ruwaili raised even more questions than he answered.
The role of the lieutenant general
At times, the investigation went in the direction of a business dispute between al-Ruwaili and his Thai business partners. But for Riyadh, it was clear from the start that police and investigators, first, did not want to solve the case and, second, were knee-deep in it themselves.
For it wasn’t just al-Ruwaili: as two Saudi diplomats drove through Bangkok in 1990, unidentified men attacked the car and shot the two men dead. At the same time, another assassin visited a third diplomat at his home and shot him dead. Whether the murders are directly connected to the jewel heist has not been clarified. U.S. diplomats believe the attacks may also have resulted from the Saudis’ feud with Hezbollah militia.
A few years after the Riyadh robbery, the police made a gruesome discovery: the trunk of a Mercedes contained the lifeless bodies of a woman and a boy – the family of the jewelry dealer who bought the jewels from the janitor. The trader himself was kidnapped and tortured, it was said. He is said to have given the fake jewels to the lieutenant general, but it is the lieutenant general who is actually behind the whole story. Means: He allegedly sold the real jewels, used the dealer as a middleman – and then ordered the murder of his wife and child.
The janitor served two years. The lieutenant general was sentenced to death, and the sentence was commuted to a long prison term. Today, both claim to have been purified by the monks.
But most of the events remain unexplained. Where are the jewels today? Who murdered the Saudi diplomats?? And who were the masterminds?
Riyadh, in any case, has maintained diplomatic firmness since the robbery. Visas for Thai workers were issued very sparingly by the authorities, which hit Bangkok hard. Because the many workers sent money home regularly. There was also an ice age between the two countries in other respects, with Bangkok in particular making repeated and futile efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations.