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A Blue Diamond Affair: the Geopolitics of a Heist
The Saudi crown prince just arrived in Thailand, marking the end of a three decade diplomatic dispute involving a jewel heist, several grisly murders, and a geopolitical gemstone mystery.
Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s murderous crown prince, arrived in Bangkok on Thursday evening. It may seem like a normal head of state visit, as MBS touched down in Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
But there’s much more to this story than meets the eye. His arrival, and the official welcome that he received, marks the end of a thirty year saga involving a gardener thief, a very large blue diamond, and a series of grisly murders that tore the two countries apart and severed diplomatic relations for decades.
It’s a story of intrigue, but it’s also a story of shifting geopolitics. And it’s particularly relevant now, as the World Cup is about to open in neighboring Qatar, where imported Asian workers continue to be subjected to abysmal working conditions.
In 1989, a Thai gardener named Kriangkrai Techamong was working in the palace of Faisal bin Fahd Al Saud, the eldest son of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia. Kriangkrai was a garden servant, tending to the lush greenery around the desert palace, but every so often, he was asked to perform tasks inside the living quarters.
It was a workplace of grotesque inequality, with imported Asian workers performing menial labor, while the House of Saud lived a life of luxury, driving around in flashy cars, but most of all, displaying their sparkling collections of nearly priceless jewels. There were said to be rubies the size of chicken eggs. But one of the gems particularly caught the gardener’s eye: an enormous 50 carat blue diamond, one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the world.
When his masters embarked on a three month trip abroad, Kriangkrai spotted an opportunity to change his fortunes.
The gems, he knew, were kept in a bedroom safe on the second story of the palace. He hatched a plot that was so crazy that it might just work. In the middle of the night, he climbed up the side of the palace and entered the second story bedroom. He smashed open the safe—apparently not the most secure storage place for valuable gems, it turned out—and descended with 200 pounds of gemstones and jewelry.
The gardener didn’t know it at the time, but he had just stolen $20 million from the Saudi royal family.
What do you do when you have 90 kilograms of gems and need to get them out of a country quickly? The answer came to Kriangkrai in a flash of brilliance: stick them in a vacuum cleaner bag and ship them home via DHL. So, that’s what he did. As planned, the stolen jewels arrived in Lampang Province, Thailand a few days later.
Worried his shipment would be searched, Kriangkrai told the BBC how he had tried to ensure that Thai customs officials wouldn’t discover the gems. “Kriangkrai stuffed an envelope with money and a note and put it in his cargo. The note said his cargo had pornographic material inside, and he would prefer it not to be searched.”
Saudi authorities quickly figured out what had happened. They notified Thai officials, who began their own investigation. By that time, Kriangkrai had returned home, able to easily get through the airport unnoticed because the jewels had already been shipped back separately. But he knew that the authorities would soon come knocking on his door.
If a modest man wearing inexpensive clothes were to arrive at a gemstone dealer with one of the most spectacular blue diamonds in the world, it wouldn’t take Hercule Poirot to work out what’s going on. And that’s why Kriangkrai only managed to offload the gemstones—at a tiny fraction of their true value—to a dealer named Santhi Sithanakan.
Because this wasn’t the most well-planned heist, police quickly caught Kriangkrai. He told them where the gems had gone, so they caught Santhi, too. A delegation of Thai officials flew to Saudi Arabia to triumphantly return the stolen jewels.
When they arrived, the Saudis were furious to realize that the blue diamond was still missing. And it turned out that half of the returned gems were fakes, swapped out for the real ones, which were nowhere to be found. At the same time, photos reportedly began to circulate showing high-ranking Thai officials, some who had connections to the police, wearing suspiciously large gemstones on glitzy necklaces.
The Saudis suspected foul play, and reportedly sent a delegation to Bangkok to lead their own investigation. It included three diplomatic officials and a well-connected businessman named Mohammad al-Ruwaili. On February 1st, 1990, “Saudi chargé d'affaires Abdullah al-Basri was standing outside his residence in the upscale Thung Maha Mek area of Bangkok.” An assassin came up to him and shot him four times. His pregnant wife discovered the body. Minutes later, the other two diplomats were murdered, shot dead while in their car. A little over a week later, al-Rawaili disappeared. His body has never been found.
Despite appearances, most who have investigated the cases believe that the Thai police did not kill these Saudi officials, but rather that they were murdered by Iran, or by Hezbollah, in a separate dispute – and they were simply easier to get at in Bangkok.
However, Thai police came up with a bogus theory: that the businessman, al-Rawaili, had been behind the murders. According to Andrew MacGregor-Marshall, one of the foremost experts on modern Thai politics, Thai police “kidnapped Ruwaili and took him to a room in the Chimphli Hotel in Khlong Tan where they chained him to a chair and tortured him… They incinerated his corpse in an oil drum in a plantation in the Surasak subdistrict of the Si Racha district in Chonburi province, between Bangkok and Pattaya.” The only thing that remained was a gold ring.
So, what happened to the gems, and what does it tell us about geopolitics during the era of Biden and Xi that Saudi Arabia and Thailand are starting to make nice?
Several police officials have been tried and convicted for their involvement in the Blue Diamond Affair, including Lieutenant-General Chalor Kerdthes, who was sentenced to death for stealing gemstones during the investigation, and for ordering the abduction and murder of one of the wife and son of one of the gem dealers involved in the case, who he feared might talk. Their deaths were officially chalked up to a “road accident,” even though they had clearly been beaten to death. (The police officer, who spent decades in prison, was not executed, and was freed in 2013).
Outraged, the House of Saud downgraded diplomatic relations with Thailand in 1990 and stopped issuing worker visas to Thai nationals. This was a major blow for Thailand’s economy, as roughly 200,000 Thais had been working in Riyadh, sending remittances back to their relatives. Plus, Thailand had been a frequent destination for the Saudi elite, who were happy to splash quite a lot of cash in Bangkok and on Thai beaches. All of that abruptly ended.
That frosty non-relationship persisted for more than thirty years, until now. In March, the first Saudia Airlines flight arrived in Bangkok, the first direct flight since the unsolved murders. Thai tourism officials have been aggressively courting Saudi visitors, particularly because they’re hoping to backfill the loss of lucrative Chinese tourists, who have trouble traveling abroad because of draconian covid-19 restrictions in China.
This week, officials are hoping to develop more plans to bolster ties particularly related to electric vehicle production and renewable energy. An agreement to create a Thai-Saudi business council was signed in September. Thai officials are expecting up to $10 billion in fresh investments from Saudi Arabia. MBS will be the first foreign official to be granted an audience with Thailand’s new and unpopular king, Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Why does this matter for geopolitics? Thailand is one of America’s oldest allies. Owing to Thailand’s role during the Vietnam War, the US Embassy in Bangkok is one of the largest in the world. Saudi Arabia, despite its horrendous human rights record and the fact that the crown prince ordered the murder of my former Washington Post colleague Jamal Khashoggi, remains a close American ally, too. But both are facing choppy waters and an impulse to diversify their diplomatic portfolio, particularly as the Biden administration is far more willing to criticize human rights abuses and authoritarianism than the Trump White House.
Both regimes are also trying to hedge their bets, flirting with ever-closer ties to China and Russia. In August, Thailand conducted a joint air force drill with China called Falcon Strike. And Thailand has long been trying to buy submarines from China, too, a move that has angered American officials.
This is reminiscent of the hedging strategy that emerged for some countries during the Cold War, as they sought to dangle their diplomatic alignment as a prize to be earned by the highest bidder. Thailand and Saudi Arabia are both testing the waters, but they are simultaneously pursuing plans that will allow them to work more closely with other similar mid-size powers, further hedging against a volatile geopolitical environment.
The blue diamond has never been found.
For his part, Kriangkrai, the gardener thief, became a monk in 2016. He was given the monastic name of Wachira Yano, “meaning one with a wisdom as strong as a diamond.”
It didn’t last. The man who stole millions and set off a chain reaction that severed diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Thailand for three decades gave up his robes in 2019. The $20 million of jewels that he stole hasn’t done him much good. He now lives in a shack in Lampang.
The Garden of Forking Paths is a new Substack written by Brian Klaas, associate professor of global politics at University College, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, host/creator of the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast, and author of four books, including Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.
If you’re interested in this story, I produced a podcast episode about it in 2019.
If you’re interested in Thai politics, a world that is endlessly fascinating, I can highly recommend Secret Siam, a substack by Andrew-MacGregor Marshall. He disputes the existence of the Blue Diamond, and believes it was a fabrication by the Saudis all along. He also disputes that the Saudis were sent to investigate the Blue Diamond Affair, and has said they were in Thailand all along. Other journalists, in the articles linked above, have said they were sent to investigate.