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How the blue diamond, a hot stone, led to a 30-year diplomatic dispute

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BANGKOK, Thailand — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was given a rapturous welcome during a visit here earlier this month, perhaps finally putting to bed one of the world’s strangest diplomatic standoffs.

As the leader of the world’s largest energy producer with billions and billions of dollars in investments and purchases, the Saudi crown is usually welcomed with open arms in a country like Thailand. But the prince’s visit comes only after Riyadh lifted three decades of sanctions that cost the Thai economy countless billions of dollars in lost trade, tourism and jobs – all because a Thai janitor, or perhaps a Thai gardener, stole a large diamond more than three decades ago.

The Blue Diamond Affair and its toxic mix of greed, meanness, treachery and bloodshed still resonates. The rare 50-carat stone at the center of the caper was never returned to Riyadh, and its current whereabouts remain a mystery. Or perhaps a secret.

During the Crown Prince’s visit to Bangkok on November 18-19, he met and posed with world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which was also attended by Vice President Kamala Harris and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The prince, popularly known by his initials “MBS”, was also a local attraction, meeting Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and hearing Thailand’s urgent appeal for Saudi tourists, natural gas and investment.

That’s not all: there are niche export opportunities, including Thai chicken and beef slaughtered according to Islamic halal law. Saudi Arabia faces a persistent labor shortage and can offer jobs to Thai factory, construction and shipyard workers, electricians and machine operators, oil and gas technicians, hotel and medical staff, cooks and housekeepers.

But the countries restored full diplomatic relations after more than three decades of hostility in January when Mr Chan-ocha accepted an invitation to visit Riyadh. A reciprocal visit by the crown prince, Thai officials hope, may finally rid both countries of the incident.

“The restoration of ties is mutually beneficial for both countries,” the crown prince said on November 19 during the welcoming ceremony.

Thai politicians, businesses and the media predict that Bangkok and Riyadh are entering into a lucrative relationship that will help save Thailand’s troubled economy, but first the blue diamond business needs to be put in order.

It all started in 1989 when Kriangkrai Techamong, a Thai servant who worked for the ruling Saudi family, absconded with about 200 pounds of jewelry and other precious stones from Prince Faisal bin Fahd’s palace. The acquisition, which was hidden for a time in a vacuum cleaner bag and taken to Thailand, included a rare 50-carat blue diamond, one of the largest and most valuable of its kind in the world.

A year later, Saudi businessman Mohammed al-Ruwaili, who had close ties to the Saudi royal family, disappeared in Bangkok while investigating the crimes. He is considered dead.

Saudi Arabia, also angered by Bangkok’s failure to solve the apparent murders of four Saudi diplomats in Thailand around the time, which may or may not have been related to the robbery, has expelled more than 200,000 Thai workers, banned Saudi tourist travel to Thailand and cut imports and exports.

Thai police soon nabbed Mr. Kriagnkrai after he sold the hot gems to Thai jeweler Santi Sithanakan at ridiculously low prices because the thief didn’t know their value. After only three years in prison, Mr. Kriangkrai was released in 1994.

An attempt to bring the Thai government together took a surprising turn when police Lt. Gen. Chalor Kerdtes, the man who led the investigation that caught Mr. Kriangkrai, flew to Saudi Arabia and returned some of the jewelry. Saudi officials were outraged to discover that many of the recovered gems were fake, and that the blue diamond prize — one of the largest of its kind in the world — was not included at all.

In yet another twist in a complicated chain of events, Lt. Gen. Chalor and other police officers were charged and convicted of murdering the wife and child of a gem dealer, Mr. Santi. The general was initially sentenced to death, but later received 50 years in prison for his involvement in the crime. In 2015, he received a royal pardon.

Spoiled relationship

Relations between Riyadh and Bangkok soured as the chain of events surrounding the blue diamonds unfolded, and have struggled to recover since then. The number of Thais working in the Arab kingdom and sending home valuable remittances to their families has risen from 200,000 at the time of the heist to a tenth by 2008.

New layers have been added to the mystery: a February 2010 “confidential” cable from the US Embassy in Bangkok titled “The Curse of the Blue Diamond” published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks reports that “soon after the incident, some wives of Thai elites, particularly police commissioners and generals, have been photographed wearing jewelry very similar to the stolen Saudi jewels at various official and high-profile events.’

“The blue diamond was seen several times on the wife of a police general in the 1990s,” the embassy said, but it later disappeared. This cable was sent to the US Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the US Pacific Command, US embassies in China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

But no evidence has emerged that Thai police have recovered any of the so far missing jewels.

A US embassy cable claimed that four officers convicted in the deaths of the jeweler’s wife and teenage son had confessed that “police allegedly kidnapped family members to force Santi to reveal what happened to the jewels.” After the jeweler paid up, a “police gang” killed his wife and child to cover their tracks.
In 2001, “two judges, one from the Court of Appeals and one from the Supreme Court, tried to extort” hundreds of thousands of dollars from Lt. Gen. Chalor, the telegram said, apparently to find him innocent.

The Supreme Court supported Lt. Gen. Chalora was sentenced to death for kidnapping and two murders, but was released a few years later.

Other members of the gang were acquitted. One officer reportedly died in prison while awaiting trial.

In January, Prime Minister Prayuth met with Prince Salman in Riyadh and said relations now “should be better than they have been in the last 32 years.”

“Both countries have agreed to fully restore diplomatic relations, including the appointment of ambassadors,” Mr Prayuth said.

A joint statement by Saudi Arabia and Thailand said Mr Prayuth “expressed his sincere regret for the tragic events that took place in Thailand in 1989-1990”.

Thailand is committed to “providing adequate security to members of the Royal Saudi Embassy in Bangkok,” it said in a statement.

“We will move on and not talk about the past anymore,” said Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

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