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Time running out for thai-saudi relations

After twenty years, embassy officials still decry lack of progress in jewellery and murder cases

Published on April 9, 2008

It is almost two decades since the death of three Saudi Embassy officials and a Saudi businessman went missing in Bangkok after Lampang worker Kriangkrai Techamong stole a huge amount of jewellery from a palace in Riyadh.Thailand established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1957 and hundreds of thousands Thai workers went to work in the oil-rich country. More than 200,000 Thai workers were deported after the 1989 incidents, with only around 10,000 remaining in the desert kingdom. Thailand has lost hundreds of billions of baht.

Government after government in Bangkok has failed in attempts to restore friendly relations, as Riyadh demands evidence of progress in the investigation of the cases.

Representatives of the Saudi Embassy consistently ask about progress whenever Thailand gets a new government. The current administration is no exception, as Saudi officials met several senior officials weeks ago to ask the same questions. As usual, the government repeated the same message to the Saudis: that the authorities are making progress and intend to restore relations with Riyadh. But nothing has happened.

Legally, these cases will expire in less than two years' time; they will be 20 years old, and that means the chance of improving relations with Saudi Arabia is getting slimmer.

Clearing the cases is important for Saudi Arabia, notably for the family of the missing businessman. The return of fake jewellery to the palace in Riyadh and items still missing shows not only  the dishonesty of certain Thais but also insults a country that gave jobs to poor Thais.

It is not easy to beg for forgiveness in such an embarrassing manner. In order to restore relations, the Thai government and all concerned parties need to show sincerity in clearing these criminal cases, including where the jewellery is hidden, an answer to the whereabouts of the missing businessman, and finding the murderers of the diplomats.

Cheap political gimmicks such as telling the media that the foreign minister has asked for help from the US to persuade Riyadh to improve relations with Thailand will not work. Despite the close relationship between Washington and Riyadh, it is not the US's business - or that of any other government - to help mend relations between Thailand and Saudi Arabia. It is the burden of the Kingdom alone to correct the wrongs it has committed. In Buddhism, we have to face our sins and accept the karma for what we have done. Relations with Saudi Arabia will not be improved, perhaps never, if the government fails to show any progress in the remaining time.

Thailand has joined block-to-block relations with Saudi Arabia in regional cooperation schemes such as the Asia Middle East Dialogue (AMED) which ended on Sunday, and Thailand will host the third meeting in two years. Saudi Arabia will host the fourth. Cooperation within the whole AMED scheme might not work effectively due to differences between the 50 members from the two different regions, but it is a good vehicle and forum to bring people together. The Thailand delegation will have a chance to see their Saudi counterparts. The more frequently we meet, the closer we get, so the government should use this kind of forum and opportunity to help mend relations sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, the new government has no clear direction on this situation. But it is not too late. If the country looks at the Asia Middle East Dialogue with care, when Thailand takes the chairmanship, it will see an opportunity to play a role in the Middle East and eventually improve relations with Saudi Arabia.   

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