SAUDI ARABIA: The kingdom and Thailand attempt to settle 20-year row over stolen diamond
Ever since a Thai laborer stole a set of jewels, including a rare blue diamond worth millions of dollars, from a Saudi prince in 1989, Saudi-Thai ties have been frosty and trade relations between the two countries have suffered.
The jeweler thief, Kriangkrai Techamong, worked as a janitor at the prince's palace in the late 1980s and apparently stored 200 pounds of stolen jewels in a vacuum cleaner before shipping them to his Thai hometown. The jewels were never retrieved, and the spat left Saudi Arabia infuriated.
But now it seems as if the two countries have had a change of hearts. This week, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with the Saudi charge d'affaires in a pledge to put an end to the more than 20-year-long row.
The unsolved multimillion-dollar scam, known as the "Blue Diamond" case, has been shrouded in mystery and taken several bloody twists over the years.
In 1990, three Saudi diplomats were shot dead in the Thai capital, Bangkok.
A prominent Saudi businessman, Mohammad Ruwaili, was believed to have witnessed the shootings. He mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter and was never heard from again.
The trail of destruction continued into the 1990s when the wife and child of a jeweler thought to have sold some of the loot were kidnapped and killed.
But a breakthrough in the disappearance of Ruwaili appears to have been the catalyst for a diplomatic relations thaw between the two countries.
The meeting between the Thai prime minister and the Saudi official took place as Thai prosecutors are expected to decide on whether to indict five former police officers in connection with the disappearance of the Saudi businessman.
"We are trying to improve relations," the BBC quoted the Thai premier as saying. He said the legal inquiry into the case would be independent. "The government will not interfere in the judicial process. ... I assured [the charge d'affaires] this process will be straightforward," he said.
Saudi Arabia wants the case solved before the 20-year statute of limitations runs out next month. Recent statements from Thai lawmakers suggest things might be looking good for the Saudis.
"The new evidence we have is sufficiently strong to believe the officers have done wrong," news reports quoted Thampitch Moonlapuk, executive director of the Office of the State Attorney Commission, as saying.
As for the jewel thief, he was caught in Thailand and went to prison. But the Saudi authorities received an unpleasant surprise when Thai police returned to them what they thought were the stolen jewels.
The majority of the precious stones, including the blue diamond, turned out to be fake.
Only a few blue diamonds are in existence today, the most famous of them being the Hope Diamond. Last year, a rare blue diamond went under the hammer at an auction in Geneva for a record $9.5 million.
Not surprising, Saudi Arabia wants its rare blue stone back before it agrees to improved relations with Thailand.
It is believed that the mystery jewelry theft has cost billions of dollars in trade and resulted in many job losses for Thai laborers in Saudi Arabia.
Before the blue diamond affair, as many as 300,000 Thais were working in Saudi Arabia. Today, there are only 15,000 Thai migrant workers employed there.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: The Hope Diamond, housed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., is the world's most famous blue diamond. Credit: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History