Back then, 250,000 (about 60%) of the laborers, maids, gardeners, houseboys and other non-skilled worker were Thai. But today, that number is well under 10,000 out of some 8 million.
The reason remains one of the more fascinating stories in Saudi recent history.
It involves an inside job, a jewelry heist, a buried treasure, more than a dozen murders, kidnappings and a surprise ending – well not exactly an end, since the cases remain largely unsolved – but at least a surprise!
In the summer of 1989, a Thai national named Kriangkrai Techamong was working as a gardener at the palace of Prince Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz, the son of then King Fahad bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
Techamong allegedly used his position of trust in the palace to sneak into the Prince’s quarters while the Prince was on holiday, and steal a whopping 200 pounds of jewels with an estimated value of $20 million USD! Among the treasures was a stunning – and rare – 50 carat blue diamond, a necklace of rare green diamonds, egg-sized rubies and a $2 million sapphire necklace.
He loaded the jewels into boxes and sent them back home via DHL to Thailand before leaving Saudi himself.
Once he got back, Techamong buried some of the treasure near his home in Lampang and sold the rest – or at least tried to sell the rest – for a paltry thirty bucks a piece to local gem dealers and others.
But word got out that there was some amazing jewelry to be had, and a local gem dealer named Santi Sithanakan took note, allegedly buying up whatever gems the former gardener-cum-jewel thief had left.
That’s where things got intriguing. Or at least more intriguing!
The theft of 200 pounds of jewels didn't go unnoticed for long, not even in a royal palace, and within a few weeks, three Saudi diplomats, Abdullah Al-Besr, Fahad Al-Bahjli and Ahmed Alsaif were dispatched to Bangkok to get to the bottom of things.
And apparently they did get to the bottom of things – but it didn’t go well for them. On February 1, 1990, all three were gunned down – assassinated separately on the streets on Bangkok.
Two weeks later, Saudi businessman Mohammed al- Ruwaili disappeared. Many think he also knew something about the gems. His body has never been found.
But Techamong had been found alive, and so had the jewels.
In March of 1990, Techamong was sentenced to five years in jail, and the Thai government returned the jewels to the Saudi government in an elaborate display of ceremony and good will.
Which would have been great…if the jewels had actually been returned.
Turns out the jewels which were returned were largely fake – some 80% turned out to be nothing more than pretty paste!
Which really got the Saudi’s going.
They quickly sent in a new tough-talking, gun-toting' charge d'affairs, Mohammed Said Khoja, with instructions to get the gems back and solve the murders.
Khoja believed Sithanakan, the gem dealer, was responsible for the fake jewels. And he believed the murders – and the disappearance – were committed to keep the four Saudi men from talking. More than that, he thought Thai authorities were involved.
And for him, the case was personal. Very personal. One of the murdered men, Fahd al-Bajhli, had been his student in the diplomatic institute.
During the next months, sightings of the Saudi jewels – the real Saudi jewels – start making the rounds. They were seen on the arms and necks and fingers of the wives of prominent Thai generals and officials at parties and gala events. They were even photographed, and the photos were shown to Saudi officials, adding salt to an open wound, and what was, at least according to the Thai police, a closed case.
And then miraculously, the Thais reopened the case, charged four men for the crime and returned a few of the jewels. A few as in less than one-tenth of the original jewels taken.
In gratitude, the Saudi’s revoked the igamas of a quarter of a million Thai workers in Kingdom.
And that’s why there are so few Thai laborers in Saudi Arabia today, why Thailand is not a popular holiday destination for Saudis, and also why Saudi and Thailand still have such cool dealings.
Great story, eh?
But of course, it doesn’t end there. I’ll share the rest in another post!
What are some other ways global politics and diplomacy have shaped the face of a nation in the past? What about today? What impact do politics and diplomacy - and intrigue - have?