The true curse of the blue diamond
Thailand's relations with Saudi Arabia were blighted for three decades by a fabled missing gemstone that probably never even existed
In June 2006, King Bhumibol Adulyadej marked 60 years on the throne of Thailand, amid an outpouring of adoration from millions of Thais and an impressive show of respect from other royal families around the world. Thirteen reigning monarchs attended the celebrations in person, and 12 others sent royal representatives.
There were five days of festivities, including a royal barge procession in which 2,082 liveried oarsmen rowed 52 sleek vessels up the Chao Phraya river to Wat Arun, the temple of the dawn, as Bhumibol sat aboard his personal swan-headed vessel Suphannahongse, representing the mythical bird ridden by the Hindu god Brahma.
Only two reigning royal families were absent from the jubilee celebrations.
One of them was Nepal’s Royal House of Gorkha, which was still in turmoil following the 2001 massacre of King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and many of their relatives by their son, Crown Prince Dipendra, who went on a drunken rampage through the Narayanhity Royal Palace in Kathmandu with a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun and M16 assault rifle before committing suicide.
The other royal family to fail to attend was Saudi Arabia’s House of Saud. This was a deliberate snub. The official story was that the octogenarian King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz was too ill to come, but given that the Saudi royal family has around 15,000 members, it’s not as if they were short of other candidates who could represent the Gulf kingdom.
The real reason was that the Saudis were still seething about the effrontery of the Thai authorities for allegedly failing to find a stolen multi-million-dollar hoard of opulent gems and jewellery, tying to dupe them with fake gems instead, and failing to properly investigate the murders of three Saudi diplomats and a Saudi businessman.
Saudi Arabia downgraded diplomatic relations in 1990 as a result of the fiasco, withdrawing its ambassador, kicking out most Thai workers, and banning Saudis from visiting Thailand.
It was an economic disaster for Thailand. Previously more than a quarter of a million Thais worked in Saudi Arabia and sent back remittances to support their families, and Thailand was thronged by wealthy Saudi tourists seeking some escape from their suffocatingly straight-laced Gulf kingdom. All that ended, and relations never recovered for more than thirty years.
In a dramatic development that he has hailed as a masterly diplomatic coup, Thai premier Prayut Chan-ocha flew to Riyadh in January for talks with the de facto Saudi ruler, the notorious crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — also known by his acronym MBS, and nicknamed Mr Bone Saw following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and then dismembered.
On arrival, Prayut’s welcome was noticeably frosty, according to the Associated Press:
A notably low-ranking official, the deputy governor of Riyadh, received the prime minister at the airport. There was no live TV showing his arrival and Saudi state-run media published just a few photos of his initial palace meeting with deputy governor Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Abdulaziz.
But this was all just theatrics. MBS would never have invited Prayut if he didn’t intend to strike a deal. The crown prince has been shaking up foreign policy, in particular easing Saudi Arabia’s historic hostility to Israel. He clearly thought the benefits of a rapprochement with Thailand outweighed the cost of appearing to back down in the festering three-decade dispute between the two kingdoms.
After a couple of hours of talks, a joint statement on official Saudi media said the two countries had “agreed to fully normalise their diplomatic relations” and added:
This historic breakthrough is a result of long-term efforts on many levels from both sides to restore mutual trust and friendly relations.
They agreed to appoint ambassadors in Bangkok and Riyadh “in the near future”.
Shortly afterwards, national flag carrier Saudia tweeted that it would resume flying to Thailand in May after a three-decade hiatus. The first Saudia flight in 32 years arrived in Bangkok on February 28.
But the Saudis have made clear that the saga of the stolen jewels and the deception and murders that followed is far from forgotten. The joint statement in January said Prayut was “keen to resolve all pending issues between the two sides, expressing his sincere regrets for the tragic cases that took place in Thailand between 1989–1990”:
The Thai prime minister reaffirmed that Thailand had exerted utmost efforts to resolve the cases and that it stands ready to bring the cases to the consideration of the competent Thai authorities if new well-founded evidence relating to the cases should emerge.
This, as the Saudi side must surely know, was a lie. The Thai authorities have never exerted their utmost efforts to resolve the affair, because they feared too many powerful people were implicated, perhaps even in the palace. They would prefer to leave the blood-soaked saga of corruption, torture and murder buried in the past forever.
At the heart of the story is an ultra-rare 50-carat blue diamond that the Saudis say was stolen from a palace in Riyadh by a Thai janitor, later stolen again by Thai police, and which has never been returned.
For many years it has been rumoured that Queen Sirikit had taken the diamond for herself. There was never any evidence for this, but the story was not completely implausible. Given the damage done to Thailand’s economy by the disappearance of the gem, only one of the most powerful people in the kingdom could get away with keeping it. Sirikit had a voracious appetite for expensive couture and jewellery, and in Thailand’s system of assigning people a symbolic colour based on the day of the week they were born, her colour is blue. The emblem for her 80th birthday in 2012 featured a pair of large blue gems.
If anybody in Thailand had the blue diamond, it was probably her.
This has led to a new rumour circulating among high-society Thais. The whispered gossip is that King Vajiralongkorn, eager to befriend a similarly murderous monarch, took the diamond from the now-senile Sirikit and sent it to Mr Bone Saw as a gesture of friendship to end the animosity between the two kingdoms.
However, none of this is true.
It’s highly unlikely the Thai royals ever had possession of the blue diamond.
It’s not even clear if the diamond was ever anything more than a myth.
The tale of the blue diamond has been written numerous times over the years — including by me for Reuters in 2010. Many of those who wrote about it just copied and embellished the work of previous journalists, so ever more inaccuracies crept into the story. Barely credible assertions and new unsourced details were suddenly stated as facts. Sometimes when a story is so compelling, journalists forget to question whether it’s actually true.
I’ve been taking another look at the story to try to disentangle fact from fiction by going back as much as possible to primary sources and the testimony of those involved. Many details remain murky and most witnesses are highly unreliable and untrustworthy.
But after looking at all the available evidence, and filtering out all the hearsay and gossip and embellishment, the widely accepted narrative falls apart and a very different story emerges.
This is my attempt to uncover what actually happened.
In 1989, Kriangkrai Techamong from Lampang in northern Thailand was working in Riyadh as a cleaner and janitor at the palace of Prince Faisal bin Fahd, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the kingdom, the eldest son of King Fahd. Prince Faisal and his wife Munira bint Sultan bin Abdulaziz were avid collectors of rare gems and antique jewellery.
The life of migrant workers in the Gulf states is miserable even today — they have to work relentlessly and are treated appallingly. Domestic work in the Gulf kingdoms is probably the biggest slave market in the world in the 21st century, rivalled only by the enslavement of impoverished workers on ships and fishing boats around the globe.
Kriangkrai spoke to the BBC in 2019 so we know his account of what happened. Although he is a convicted international jewel thief, he was an opportunistic amateur rather than a sophisticated professional, and he appears to be one of the more honest witnesses in this story.
Kriangkrai explained that because he cleaned the palace he knew every room intimately and he had discovered that three of the four safes containing Faisal’s jewels were regularly left unlocked. Meanwhile, Faisal and Munira set off for a three-month holiday abroad.
Kriangkrai told the BBC that one evening he made an excuse to be inside the palace, waited until other staff had left, sneaked into the king’s bedroom, and grabbed some valuable-looking items, sticking them to his body using duct tape. He hid other gems and jewellery in vacuum cleaner bags. According to what he told the BBC:
That night, Kriangkrai hid the valuables all over the palace, in places he knew they would not be discovered. And then, over a month, he moved them and hid them in the middle of a large cargo delivery he was sending home to Thailand.
Kriangkrai faced another serious problem — how to ensure Thai customs officials didn’t find his stolen treasures hidden in the crate he was sending to Thailand via DHL back to Lampang.
All items imported from abroad had to be checked as they entered the country. But because he knew Thai officials could not resist a bribe, 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.
Shortly after he sent the cargo, Kriangkrai slipped out of Saudi Arabia and headed home.
So far he had been amazingly successful. He had managed to smuggle an incredible trove of jewellery out of the palace of the king’s son in one of the most repressive kingdoms on earth, get it out of the country, and make his getaway without a hitch.
It was at this point that his plans fell apart.
Kriangkrai apparently hadn’t considered the fact that it is simply not possible to secretly sell a haul of stolen rare gems and jewellery worth millions of dollars for anything close to their true value — least of all in a place like Lampang.
He began hawking individual items around Lampang jewellers for just a handful of dollars. Bangkok-based jeweller Santi Sithanakan got wind of what was happening and struck a deal to buy most of the items from Kriangkrai for just $30 apiece.
Returning to Riyadh after their holiday, Prince Faisal and his wife discovered the theft and quickly realised Kriangkrai was the prime suspect. The Saudis informed the Thai authorities and a team led by one of the most senior officers in the Royal Thai Police, lieutenant-general Chalor Kerdthes, deputy commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau, was given the task of urgently recovering the stolen treasures.
Kriangkrai was arrested in January 1990. He hadn’t been hard to find — he was just at home in Lampang. He confessed to everything and his information quickly led to the arrest of Santi and the apparent discovery of most of the stolen Saudi items. Kriangkrai was later sentenced to five years in jail. He served half, because he had cooperated with the investigation and pleaded guilty.
The recovered haul was displayed to journalists, along with Santi, pictured in handcuffs at the right of the frame.
A couple of months after this triumphant display of the effectiveness of the Royal Thai Police, a delegation led by Chalor flew to Saudi Arabia to return the recovered gems in a ceremony aimed at mending strained relations between the two kingdoms.
It was a disaster. Most of the stolen treasures were still missing, the Saudis declared, and most of the gems that were returned were fake — the real jewels had been replaced by paste copies.
There had been another heist, according to the Saudi regime. The jewellery stolen from Faisal in Riyadh had somehow been stolen again sometime after being sold to Santi, replaced by worthless copies in a crude effort to get away with the crime.
Kriangkrai’s opportunistic theft had spiralled into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.
Five murders and a disappearance
Saudi chargé d'affaires Abdullah al-Basri was standing outside his residence in the upscale Thung Maha Mek area of Bangkok, southeast of Sathorn Road, not far from the Saudi embassy, on February 1, 1990, when an assassin walked up to him and shot him four times.
His pregnant wife found his body when she returned home shortly afterwards.
A few minutes later, a few blocks away, two more Saudi embassy staff, attaché Ahmad al-Saif and telex operator Fahad al-Bahli were shot dead in a car near another diplomatic residence.
The two attacks had clearly been coordinated.
“Saudi Arabia reiterates its categorical condemnation of such a suspicious act of terrorism, which has no target except saturating the appetite of killing and bloodshed,” said a Saudi foreign ministry statement broadcast on Radio Riyadh. It demanded that “the Thai government shoulder its full responsibilities by divulging the culprits, and inflicting on them a just punishment”.
In Saudi Arabia, murderers are usually punished by being publicly beheaded.
Less than two weeks after the killings, a well-connected Saudi businessman who had been working in Bangkok vanished. Mohammad al-Ruwaili was last seen on February 12. No trace of him has ever been found — except, perhaps, a gold ring, which we will get to later.
By now the Saudis were apoplectic. They downgraded diplomatic relations with Thailand, and dispatched a veteran diplomat to replace his murdered predecessor as the new chargé d'affaires. His name was Mohammed Said Khoja and his instructions were to do whatever it took to locate the Saudi jewels and find out who was behind the murders. He arrived in March 1990.
Khoja, whose probable background was in Saudi intelligence, financed a large network of informants and investigators to track down the killers and locate the stolen loot. But years went by without any progress. The Thai authorities were no closer to establishing who killed the diplomats or where the missing gems were. Khoja pressed them relentlessly for answers.
In mid-1994 there was a sudden spasm of violence related to the blue diamond.
First the jeweller Santi Sithanakan was abducted by police and tortured. Then on August 1, 1994, his wife Darawadee, 34, and 14-year-old son Seri were found dead in their wrecked Mercedes Benz on a highway in Saraburi. Thai police forensic officers declared they had been killed in a road accident.
It quickly became clear that the police were lying — the two victims had been murdered with blows to the head, and there had been a subsequent crude attempt to make their deaths appear to have been an accident.
Santi said his own kidnapping, and the kidnapping and murder of his wife and son, had been ordered by Chalor Kerdthes, the police general in charge of tracking down the Saudi jewels, to try to extract information from him. He said had had “been repeatedly hunted by a group of police officers and civilians who wanted to squeeze more information out of him on the whereabouts of the gems”.
After he failed to get the information he needed, Chalor ordered Santi’s wife and son to be killed rather than release them and risk them implicating him.
Chalor was arrested and denied bail. A new police team was assembled to investigate where the Saudi jewels were and try to recover them.
By now, the original thief, Kriangkrai, had been released after serving two-and-a-half years in jail. According to the UPI news agency he was “broke, miserable and continually hounded by reporters”. In an interview with Thai newspaper The Nation he said:
Although I was questioned over 30 times by previous police teams, I am willing to cooperate with the new one. I want the matter to be over.
The matter was far from over.
The largest criminal organisation in Thailand
After the murders of Darawadee and Seri, self-promoting Saudi chargé d'affaires Khoja launched a full-scale information offensive against the Thai regime, and above all, the police. He gave extensive interviews to international media including The New York Times, The Washington Post, British newspaper The Independent, and news agency UPI.
He made explosive comments, which tended to escalate with each new interview, claiming that the Thai police themselves had stolen the genuine gems after seizing them from the jeweller Sonti — and indeed they may have all been in cahoots to replace the real treasures with fakes.
Khoja also ostentatiously showed journalists his chrome-plated Smith & Wesson revolver which he claimed he carried with him wherever he went, to defend himself against any police assassination attempt. He often showed off his target practice to reporters who came to visit him, and happily posed for photographs firing his gun.
The story Khoja told was that King Fahd had ordered Saudi diplomats in Thailand to focus tirelessly on finding out what had happened to the gems, and had tasked Ruwaili, who knew Bangkok well, to investigate too. The Saudis killed in Bangkok in February 1990, Khoja said, managed to find out the truth, so were murdered by Thai police to silence them.
His first major interview was with The New York Times, which published a story on September 19, 1994, by journalist Philip Shenon, with the provocative headline “Saudi Envoy Helps Expose a Thai Crime Group: The Police”
Here’s how the story begins:
The top Saudi Arabian diplomat in Thailand, Mohammed Said Khoja, reached across his desk to a zippered black bag, opened it and carefully removed his gun. The chrome-plated .38-caliber Smith & Wesson is always at his side.
Does he need protection from international terrorists? No, Mr Khoja explained, cradling the pistol in one hand. He needs protection from the national police of Thailand, a remarkable assertion that few people in Thailand would dispute.
“The police here are bigger than the government itself,” the 60-year-old diplomat whispered. “I am a Muslim, and I stay because I feel I am fighting the devils.”
After four years of digging and prodding, Mr Khoja is the man largely responsible for unearthing the biggest scandal in the history of the Thai national police, a saga that begins with the theft of more than $20 million worth of jewels from a Saudi prince and ends with a trail of blood in the streets of Bangkok.
Khoja openly alleged that Thai police had murdered the Saudi diplomats:
Mr Khoja, whose tenacity appears to have finally forced the Thai Government to act, said he was convinced that Thai police commanders were also behind the killing of three Saudi diplomats here in 1990. They were shot, he said, after learning the names of the gem thieves.
The article also promoted the not unreasonable allegation that the Thai police were the biggest criminal mafia in Thailand, and claimed Khoja was a hero:
Whatever the damage to the economy and to Thailand's reputation, Mr Khoja has become a hero to many Thais who admire his willingness to risk his own safety to expose what is widely understood to be the largest criminal organization in Thailand: the Royal Thai Police.
Oddly, the New York Times story didn’t even mention a missing priceless blue diamond. But in interviews with other media over the next few months, Khoja gave more information, including in comments to William Branigin of the Washington Post. Khoja claimed Kriangkrai had stolen Saudi loot weighing nearly 200 pounds or 90 kg, far more than his own bodyweight.
According to a story by Terry McCarthy of The Independent:
The Saudis became convinced that the Thai police were involved in a huge cover-up, that the jewels had been distributed among some influential people at the top of Thai society, and that many of these people would not stop at killing to protect themselves.
As a ruse to spook people holding the stolen gems into returning them, Khoja began claiming that the blue diamond was cursed, and whoever had stolen it would face terrible misfortune. “I'm not just saying this to make people afraid,” he insisted. “This is the truth.”
According to Branigin’s story in the Washington Post, Khoja was confident he would soon recover all the stolen jewellery:
After nearly five years of frustration, Saudi Arabia's royal family has reason to hope that it may finally get some justice in the case of more than $20 million worth of stolen jewelry — thanks in part to a pistol-packing diplomat's rather undiplomatic behavior, the power of superstition and what might be called “the curse of the Saudi gems.”
By all accounts, the case of the missing jewelry has become Thailand's worst scandal, leaving a trail of dead bodies, ruined careers and expensive ill will between the Saudi and Thai kingdoms. Certainly, superstitious Thais cannot be blamed for believing rumors, encouraged by the Saudis, that an ancient Bedouin curse hangs over the jewelry.
In recent weeks, more than 100 pieces of the missing jewelry have been turned in anonymously to police under a no-questions-asked policy. Among the first items returned were rings, earrings, a bracelet and three watches — all made of gold and studded with diamonds. Accompanying the watches was a note that said they had brought bad luck.
Police even set up an anonymous post office box — GPO Box 1030 — for anyone wanting to return the stolen loot or provide new information.
Over the next six months, more items were indeed returned. On June 9, 1995, Thai police formally handed over a haul of gems and jewellery their task force had been able to recover.
Khoja said the value of the loot returned that day was about $600,000, and that overall about two-thirds of the stolen booty had now been found. “My mission has been concluded now,” he told reporters. “I have done whatever I could until now, and I am satisfied.”
It was a strange comment to make because there was still no sign of the blue diamond, and no progress had been made in solving the murders of the Saudi diplomats or the disappearance of Ruwaili.
Khoja ended up staying three more years in Bangkok, finally leaving in April 1998, without having achieved anything else.
He did succeed in infuriating and embarrassing the Thai elite, above all Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been a police lieutenant colonel before leaving the force to enter politics, and who was minister of foreign affairs between October 1994 and February 1995 in a ramshackle coalition led by the Democrat Party, a period that coincided with Khoja’s most incendiary denunciations of Thai corruption.
“I don't like the way charge d'affaires Khoja has criticised Thailand,” Thaksin fumed in November 1994. “He has no right to demand. We have done our best. He has no right to demand, this is Thailand. This is not his country.”
Khoja’s bravado and theatrics were highly effective in keeping pressure on the Thai regime and police for years, but failed to produce a breakthrough in investigating the murders. He orchestrated the entire narrative of the blue diamond saga that continues to be repeated by the international media.
But my reinvestigation of the case shows that many of Khoja’s most explosive allegations were simply not true. He had been lying all along.
The Saudi regime called it a riot. The Iranian regime called it a massacre. The details remain contested, but what we know is that on July 31, 1987, thousands of Iranians who had come to Mecca for the annual haj pilgrimage marched through the streets of Islam’s holiest city chanting “Death to America! Death to the Soviet Union! Death to Israel!” and waving portraits of the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Similar protests had been allowed during the haj in Mecca for several years, but in 1987 the Iranian pilgrims tried to march towards the Great Mosque. Saudi security guards attacked them with truncheons and electric cattle prods, and as the fighting worsened Saudi troops opened fire. The Saudi regime has always denied that any shots were fired, but there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The death toll was at least 400, even according to the Saudi side of the story. In the aftermath, Iranian protesters stormed and ransacked the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Tehran.
The incident further inflamed tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had been escalating ever since the overthrow of the Persian monarchy in 1979. Saudi Arabia has always regarded itself as the leading power in the Sunni Muslim world, and after Khomeini became supreme leader in Tehran, Iran began asserting itself as the leader of a rival Shia bloc.
The Saudis supported Iraq in its war against Iran between 1980 and 1988. Iran supported the Shia faction Hezbollah in Lebanon and fostered the emergence of a Shia insurgent group in the Hejaz province of Saudi Arabia that also used the name Hezbollah, which can be roughly translated as “Faction of God”.
For several years, Iranian and Hezbollah assassins had been targeting Iranian dissidents all over the world, including in the UK, France, India, Pakistan, Turkey, the Philippines, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. After the Mecca incident in 1987, they began attacking Saudi diplomats too.
In October 1988, Abdul Ghani Bedawi, the second secretary at the Saudi embassy in Ankara, was shot dead. In December, Saudi diplomat Ahmed al-Amri was shot and seriously wounded in Karachi.
Then in January 1989, Saleh Abdullah al-Maliki, the third secretary at the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok, was shot dead on the street while walking home, by an assassin who unusually used a small calibre 6.35 automatic pistol.
Shia Muslim groups based in Beirut claimed responsibility for the assassination later the same day.
On October 16, 1989, Abdulrahman Shrewi, a diplomat working in the military attache’s office in the Saudi embassy in Ankara had both his legs blown off by a bomb placed under the seat of his car. On November 1 three gunmen assassinated Mohammed al-Marzouki, the last remaining Saudi diplomat in Beirut, as he climbed into his limousine. Islamic Jihad, the military wing of Hezbollah, claimed responsibility.
Three months later came the coordinated assassination of the three Saudi diplomats in Bangkok.
Contrary to the outlandish claims of Mohammed Said Khoja, it’s not a credible possibility that they were murdered by Thai police to silence them because they had found out who had stolen the Saudi gems. The timeline just doesn’t fit.
The diplomats were killed on February 1, 1990. At this time the Saudis believed the stolen jewellery had all been recovered by Thai police, and there would have been no reason for the diplomats to be investigating. It was not until March that Chalor Kerdthes travelled to Riyadh to return the jewellery, and it was only in April that the Saudis announced that thousands of items were missing and others had been replaced by fakes.
The overwhelming probability is that the assassinations were carried out by Iranian or allied Hezbollah agents as part of Iran’s targeting of Saudi diplomats abroad.
This is also the view of the US State Department — a leaked cable from ambassador Eric John in 2010 says “the Saudi diplomat murders … almost certainly were part of a Saudi feud with Hezbollah”. Groups linked to Hezbollah had explicitly claimed responsibility for the January 1989 murder, and police said the assassins used similar weapons in the February 1990 killings — small calibre pistols.
But the South Bangkok police team that investigated the assassinations, led by lieutenant colonel Somkid Boonthanom, dismissed an Iranian connection to the killings and instead pursued the spurious theory that the diplomats were killed by hitmen hired by visa brokers.
Although Thai police acknowledged the possibility that “international political conflict” could be the motive for the 1989 assassination, they believed the probable reason was conflict over the lucrative business of procuring visas for Thai migrant workers. The process was rife with corruption, with visa brokers and diplomats routinely taking bribes in order to issue visas.
According to lieutenant general Pravit Wongviseth, assistant to Thailand’s national police chief, the Saudi diplomat killed in 1989, Saleh Abdullah al-Maliki, “was known to be very strict in following procedures on the issuance of visas” and this had caused friction with brokers and businessmen. Police arrested an alleged hitman, Adinant Songkerwala, a Thai Muslim, who was charged and eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence.
After three more Saudi diplomats were killed in 1990, South Bangkok police blundered onwards with their bogus theory that conflict over the issuing of migrant worker visas was to blame again:
Police said the slayings may be connected to the murder of another Saudi envoy last year, which they said apparently stemmed from conflict over visas for labourers going to Saudi Arabia.
Despite the fact that the assassin who ambushed the two diplomats in their car had emerged from trees outside the residence of the Iranian charge d’affaires, police dismissed any link to Iran, insisting that the killings were linked to a visa racket.
They became fixated on the idea that Mohammad al-Ruwaili was the mastermind behind the murders.
Ruwaili had been living in Bangkok for years working as a fixer procuring visas for migrant workers. He spoke passable Thai, was well connected in the Bangkok business world, and had unrivalled access to Saudi diplomats.
The way the system worked was that Thais wanting a job in Saudi Arabia would pay a fee to recruitment companies in Thailand to make the arrangements. If the recruitment companies faced any problems with getting visas or other issues with the embassy, Ruwaili was the go-between to handle the situation. Given the huge number of impoverished Thais wanting to work in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, Ruwaili’s role was extremely lucrative.
Because of Ruwaili’s central role in the migrant worker recruitment process, Somkid Boonthanom and his colleagues in the South Bangkok police were convinced that he must have ordered the assassinations of the diplomats, or at the very least he would know who had.
It was an absurd theory — if Ruwaili had been having problems getting Saudi diplomats to cooperate, it’s outlandish to think that he would have four of them assassinated and then expect the process to go more smoothly. The police may have been influenced by a cultural tendency to blame foreigners for high-profile crimes that cause embarrassment for the kingdom. They were also under intense political pressure to crack the case quickly to salvage Thai relations with Saudi Arabia.
Somkid and his crew of South Bangkok police decided that the best way to proceed was to kidnap and torture Ruwaili to get him to confess what he knew. The Royal Thai Police have used such tactics against Thais for many decades with impunity, but abducting and abusing a foreigner — particularly somebody as well-connected as Ruwaili — was fraught with problems that they don’t seem to have foreseen.
Five police — Somkid Boonthanom and his comrades Prapas Piyamongkol, Somchai Jusanit, Suradet Udomdee and Prasong Thongrang — 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.
We don’t know exactly how Mohammad al-Ruwaili died. The most likely scenarios are that the police who were interrogating him killed him accidentally by going too far with their torture, or that once they realised he had nothing to do with the assassinations they murdered him to keep him quiet about what they had done.
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. According to the subsequent testimony of another police officer, lieutenant colonel Suwitchai Kaewphaluek, who was a key witness in the case, the only thing that remained of Ruwaili was his gold ring. The rest of him was reduced to ashes.
Senior officers soon became aware that Ruwaili had been killed by police. Somkid was arrested in January 1993 and charged with the murder. But he was a well connected officer with powerful friends. The Thai authorities were extremely embarrassed that a prominent Saudi businessman had been murdered by police. They preferred to try to hide the truth. Charges against Somkid were dropped, because prosecutors said there was no proof that Ruwaili was dead. In 1994 Somkid was promoted to the position of intelligence chief of Bangkok police.
Khoja’s investigations uncovered much of the truth about Ruwaili’s murder. As Branigin reported in The Washington Post in 1994:
The businessman, Mohammed Ruwaili, was abducted by police and interrogated in a hotel room, then taken to a farm outside Bangkok where he was killed and his body burned, Khoja said he learned from private investigators.
In comments about Ruwaili quoted in The Times, Khoja said:
That man was kidnapped by the Thai police department. They took him to a hotel, tortured him, broke one of his hands shot and then burnt him.
But most of Khoja’s other claims were clearly untrue, as he must have known. Ruwaili had not been given a mission by King Fahd to find the missing Saudi gems — in February 1990 the Saudis didn’t even know that much of the jewellery had gone missing again. Of the four Saudis murdered in Bangkok in February 1990, only one was killed by the police. And none of the killings had anything at all to do with the blue diamond and the stolen Saudi treasures.
Why did Khoja tell so many outrageous lies? Perhaps it was part of a strategy to try to embarrass the authorities into acknowledging what had happened to Ruwaili. Or maybe he was just a self-promoting fantasist.
In his interview with Terry McCarthy of The Independent, Khoja claimed he was writing a book about the saga and had been approached by a Hollywood studio. “It will be better than Agatha Christie,” he declared. “The mystery is unbelievable.”
No book or movie ever emerged.
After his arrest in 1994 following the murders of Darawadee and Seri Sithanakan, rogue police general Chalor Kerdthes spent 19 years at Klong Prem Central jail in Lat Yao.
The British-Australian drug smuggler David McMillan — the only foreigner ever to escape from Klong Prem — was imprisoned there at the same time as Chalor. McMillan and four other convicts each paid prison guards a bribe of 10,000 baht a week to buy themselves a cell for just the five of them, plus a television, a radio, access to an office, and food bought from local supermarkets, he told the journalist Andrew Drummond. McMillan said Chalor lived in even greater luxury at Klong Prem:
General Chalor had an even more comfortable time than I did. He was like royalty. He had taken over the prison’s Intensive Care Unit — which is of course really meant for sick prisoners — as his own suite.
Whenever I saw him, he was drunk. He had his own supply of Johnny Walker Black Label, the drink of choice to many rich Thais.
Must have done at least two bottles a day. He even turned up drunk to court but dressed smartly and arriving in a police limo.
Chalor formed a rock band in prison, and they recorded a cover version of the Elvis Presley song “Jailhouse Rock”.
He was initially sentenced to life imprisonment for the two murders, and received additional sentences for kidnapping Santi Sithanakan and for theft of some of the Saudi jewellery. Several other police officers received jail sentences for their role in handling stolen property.
But Chalor’s lenient sentence was partly due to huge bribes he paid to two senior judges. Once this was exposed, and the judges were fired, in 2006 the Appeals Court imposed the death penalty. Chalor appealed to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s relations with Saudi Arabia remained abysmal. Successive government began trying to find a way to resolve the situation.
In 2004, during the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, responsibility for solving the Saudi murders and finding the missing blue diamond was taken away from the police and handed to the Department of Special Investigation.
The DSI is part of the Justice Ministry and operates independently of the Royal Thai Police. It is assigned to investigate “special” cases that the police are likely to be too incompetent or corrupt to handle themselves, such as investigations involving organised crime, national security, and wrongdoing by the police themselves or by powerful politicians. Although like all Thai institutions it is rife with corruption and susceptible to political manipulation, it does have several honest and highly competent investigators who do their best to get to the truth.
In 2007, a new set of DSI investigators was assigned to the case, led by army colonel Piyawat Gingkaet and with no police on the team at all. It was a clear signal that the government believed the Royal Thai Police could not be trusted to ever crack the case, because they were trying to cover up the extent of their own involvement.
“This case is difficult and problematic to get evidence because it happened a long time ago, but we still think we can solve it,” said DSI director general Sunai Manomaiubom.
In March 2008, Noppadon Pattama, foreign minister in Thaksin’s proxy People’s Power Party government, said Thailand wanted to resolve the case and normalise relations with Saudi Arabia. He tried to arrange a visit to Riyadh, but it never happened.
The following month, justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat visited Chalor Kerdthes at Klong Prem jail to ask him for any additional information that could help find the blue diamond and end the feud with Saudi Arabia. “If I have a chance to mend the ties which have been strained for the past 18-19 years, I will not let it slip," Sompong told the Bangkok Post. But Chalor told him nothing useful.
A judicial coup at the end of 2008 brought a change of government, but the DSI investigative team was still on the case, and the incoming administration led by Abhisit Vejjajiva also wanted to end the dispute with the Saudis. They were in a race against time, however — the 20-year statute of limitations on the Saudi murder cases meant that charges would have to be brought by February 2010 at the latest.
By now the DSI team had concluded — correctly — that the assassinations of the four Saudi diplomats in 1989 and 1990 were unrelated to the blue diamond case, and that Shia agents linked to Iran were to blame. But they had woefully little specific information about the assassins. In August 2009 they issued an arrest warrant for “Abu Ali” for the murder of Abdullah al-Basri in 1990. They didn’t appear to realise that Abu Ali is not even a real name — it just means “father of Ali”. It’s common for parents in Muslim countries to adopt a nickname that incorporates the name of their eldest child, and many hundreds of thousands of men across the Muslim world call themselves Abu Ali. It was similar to an arrest warrant being issued for a Thai man knowing only their nickname — Chai, or Noom, or Daeng. It was absurd.
In December 2009, Chalor was brought from Klong Prem prison to hear the verdict of the Supreme Court.
His death sentence was upheld.
By the start of 2010, with the deadline approaching, the DSI investigative team believed they had enough evidence to prosecute the police officers who had tortured and murdered Mohammad al-Ruwaili in February 1990.
On January 11, Abhisit met the latest Saudi charge d’affaires in Bangkok, Nabil Ashri, and assured him that: “The government will not interfere in the judicial process and will allow law enforcement authorities to do their work.” In response, a statement from the Saudi embassy welcomed the latest developments and said Saudi Arabia “has been waiting for this day for almost 20 years”.
The main priorities for Saudi foreign policy in Thailand remained solving the murder cases and finding the missing gems. As leaked US cable 10BANGKOK278 revealed:
Saudi Arabian Charge to Thailand Nabil Ashri told the Naval Attache at a January 27 dinner that he had been personally instructed by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah to make progress on the Al-Ruwaily case, as well as the jewelry theft. According to Nabil, during an audience with King Abdullah, the King had assured him that he would “make him an Ambassador if he made progress on this.”
On January 12, five current and former police officers were charged with premeditated murder, unlawful detention, and illegal disposal of a body.
The most senior was Somkid Boonthanom, who had led the South Bangkok investigation into the Saudi murders, and by now was among the most powerful police officers in Thailand — he had been promoted several times over the years since his arrest in 1993 and was now a lieutenant general and chief of Police Region 5, based in Chiang Mai.
Also charged were two former subordinates of Somkid who had risen through the ranks to become police colonels — Prapas Piyamongkol, who was now chief of Nam Khun police station in Ubon Ratchathani, and Somchai Jusanit, chief of Sop Moei police station in Mae Hong Son. The other two accused had already left the police — lieutenant colonel Suradet Udomdee and sergeant major Prasong Thongrang.
Somkid denied he’d had anything to do with Ruwaili’s murder. He came up with a litany of incoherent excuses. He claimed that he was being persecuted by powerful people because he’d been making progress exposing illegal forest encroachment in Chiang Rai province. He also claimed he was being used as a “sacrificial lamb” to restore relations with Saudi Arabia.
His brother Somjate, a royalist army general, claimed that the pair of them were being persecuted by Thaksin because Somjate had been a key supporter of the 2006 coup and the 2008 judicial coup — even though Abhisit Vejjajiva was now the prime minister and Thaksin had no influence over the decision to prosecute. He claimed Somkid was being framed as a fall guy to help Thailand restore relations with Saudi Arabia. All of this was nonsense.
In private conversations with US diplomats, Thai officials conceded that police had murdered Ruwaili, and also correctly stated that police had no involvement in the murders of the Saudi embassy staff:
Suepsakul Common, MFA Director in the Department of Middle East and African Affairs (and previously a Saudi Arabia desk officer for six years) told us that … the Mohammad Al-Ruwaily case was the only truly pending case. While there has been no conviction in the cases of the murdered diplomats, he believed both nations agree that those murders were the result of “conflict in the Middle East” and not a result of Thai actions. Therefore, while the Saudis want Thai authorities to continue to gather evidence in these cases, they recognize the complications that the RTG faces in doing so, according to Suepsakul.
Abhisit’s sidekick Panitan Wattanayagorn said the government was determined to resolve the case in order to unlock economic opportunities in the Middle East:
Panitan from the PM's office emphasized the importance of resolving the Saudi businessman murder case to Thailand's strategy of economic recovery through targeting new markets for Thai agricultural products and labor and sources of investment, including the Gulf States. Panitan said that PM Abhisit had visited Qatar; Bahrain and the UAE were also on Thailand's radar, but the key to better relations with all the Gulf states would be fixing the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Thais believed restoring relations with Saudi Arabia would not only bring great economic benefits but could also help contain the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand:
In describing the “new beginning” for the two nations, which would commence with a reopened dialogue with Saudi Arabia, MFA Director Suepsakul insisted that the possible benefits would go beyond increased Saudi tourism to Thailand, new markets in crude oil and gas, or the influx of Thai laborers back to Saudi Arabia. More importantly, better relations with Saudi Arabia could result in better relations with the Muslim world and, in particular, Thai Muslims.
But the Abhisit administration’s attempt to settle the feud with Saudi Arabia rapidly descended into farce.
Despite the fact that he was facing a charge of murder, Somkid was promoted to the position of assistant national police chief in August 2010. Abhisit opposed the promotion but he never really had control of his own coalition government, which was mainly run by the notoriously corrupt southern Thai godfather Suthep Thaugsuban and the Bhumjai Thai party controlled by the equally notorious Buriram gangster Newin Chidchob. They were part of a cabal of politicians, judges, businessmen and military and police officers linked to the palace which really ran the country. Abhisit was just the feckless and ineffectual public face of the regime.
Somkid Boonthanom was part of the cabal, and the deep state was determined to protect him. So were the police, who were desperate to pretend that they were not involved in extrajudicial murder. Suthep, who chaired the Royal Thai Police Commission that signed off on Somkid’s promotion, claimed an investigation had found no evidence of wrongdoing — even though the trial had not even begun yet.
Predictably, Somkid’s promotion outraged the Saudis. A statement from the Saudi embassy expressed “astonishment” and added:
In light of these grave concerns, all current efforts and attempts by both countries to solve the pending issues directly affecting restoring bilateral relations may be seriously jeopardised.
The government’s attempts to handle the situation were a disaster. The administration was in disarray, with Abhisit and technocrats in the government and foreign office genuinely trying to achieve some measure of justice to appease the Saudis, while the royalist cabal was trying to sabotage any attempt to hold the killers accountable.
Abhisit, Suthep and the ludicrous foreign minister Kasit Piromya told Thai media that everything was fine and it was all just a misunderstanding. Suthep said he would send a letter to the Saudis which would clarify the matter and defuse the row. Kasit met Saudi charge d’affaires Nabil Ashri and announced he had explained everything and no letter was necessary. Abhisit then said the foreign ministry would provide a written explanation that would ease the concerns of the Saudis but that this was taking time because it had to be painstakingly translated:
The slow translation process is aimed at ensuring maximum accuracy of the message. Any misinterpretation would only result in greater complications.
Throughout all these attempts at evasion and obfuscation, the Saudis remained incandescent. The national police chief, general Wichean Potphosree, didn’t help matters by trying to claim that Somkid’s promotion was in fact effectively a demotion. As The Nation reported:
The police chief said he also would tell the Saudi diplomat that if it were any consolation, Somkid’s promotion had actually resulted in his having a lesser mandate, since a commissioner in charge of a police region is seen as more powerful than an assistant national police chief.
Despite repeated promises that the government would send a letter to explain everything to the Saudis, it never emerged. Instead, Abhisit himself went to meet charge d’affaires Ashri, now claiming that “it would be more efficient than explaining the matter via documents”. According to a Bangkok Post report on the meeting:
Mr Abhisit met with Saudi charge d’affaires Nabil Hussein Ashri at Ban Phitsanulok.
He explained to Mr Ashri that under Thai law, the senior policeman’s promotion was appropriate due to a blanket amnesty given to all state employees facing disciplinary charges on the occasion of His Majesty the King’s birthday in 2007…
According to Mr Abhisit, the Saudi envoy seemed to have insufficient information about the matter.
The story was headlined: “PM meets ‘ill-informed’ Saudi envoy.”
Unsurprisingly, this did not help the situation. A furious statement issued by the Saudi embassy said:
Mr Nabil Ashri expressed his astonishment to the news published about the said meeting with H.E. the Prime Minister of Thailand which portrayed the Chargé d’Affairs as 'ill-informed' and according to H.E. Mr Abhisit, that he seemed to have 'insufficient information about the matter' of the promotion of Pol. Lt. Gen. Somkid Boonthanom.
Mr Nabil Ashri reiterated that his prime duty representing his government here is to follow up the progress of solving the pending cases of Saudi Arabia with the Thai Government, stating that in fact he has obtained beforehand all relevant information related to the baffling promotion of one of the defendants in the case of the disappearance and murder of the Saudi businessman. The Chargé d’Affairs was quoted as saying 'I’m well-informed not ill-informed'. According to Mr Nabil Ashri, Thai officials whom he had met so far, have each time presented a different version or referred to a different law trying to explain the issue to him.
The bumbling efforts of the Abhisit administration had only succeeded in making the situation spectacularly worse.
In September 2010, with Thailand facing further curbs on the number of Muslims allowed to make the haj pilgrimage to Mecca because of the debacle, Somkid announced he would not accept the promotion and would retire from the police. But the damage from the whole squalid episode had already been done.
The trial of Somkid and four other police officers for the murder of Mohammad al-Ruwaili began in March 2012. By this time the Abhisit administration had been swept away in a landslide election victory by Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Everybody knew that the five police officers were guilty of murdering and torturing Ruwali, but the prosecution faced several major hurdles to get a conviction.
Firstly, no body had ever been found, because the police who murdered Ruwaili had incinerated his corpse in an oil drum. Technically, there was no proof he was dead.
Secondly, the main witness for the prosecution was a highly unreliable character. Police lieutenant colonel Suwitchai Kaewphaluek was another corrupt cop, who had fled Thailand, first to Cambodia and then to Dubai, to escape charges for murdering a suspect in a separate case. Suwitchai gave conflicting accounts of whether he had been present at the killing of Ruwaili — which is probable — or had just heard about what happened. He refused to return to Thailand for the trial, and only agreed to testify remotely from the United Arab Emirates.
Thirdly, Somkid was a protected member of the royalist cabal that was trying to undermine Yingluck and bring down the elected government.
The trial dragged on for two years. In September 2013, Ruwaili’s brother Ateeq and cousin Matrouk flew to Bangkok to testify. Matrouk told the court that his sister had been on the phone to Ruwaili on the day he disappeared when the call suddenly went dead (similar to what happened in the enforced disappearance of Wanchalearm Saksaksit three decades later).
In an interview with Khaosod English during the trial, Ateeq said:
The worst part is not knowing the truth about what happened to my brother. Sometimes we feel like if we knew he was really dead, we would get some closure. It would be good news even, to release ourselves from the neverending doubt. If he were dead, he would not have been suffering. Imagination is your worst enemy in these situations.
With no body to prove Ruwaili was dead, much of the debate centred on a gold ring, which the disgraced cop Suwitchai said belonged to the Saudi businessman and had been given to him after the corpse was burned. It was the only thing left of Mohammad al-Ruwaili after his body was incinerated in an oil drum.
The defence claimed that Muslims are forbidden from wearing gold jewellery — which was complete nonsense. Ruwaili’s relatives were asked if he had ever worn a gold ring, and they answered — honestly — that they didn’t know.
As the verdict approached in March 2014, the new Saudi charge d’affaires, Abdulelah Alsheaiby, said justice for the killing of Ruwaili was more important than recovering any more stolen gems. In comments to Khaosod English he said:
We have told the Thai officials many times that our relationship will go back to normal if justice is done…
It's been 24 years. We want to know who killed our people. Saudi blood is not cheap. It's unacceptable that no one has been held responsible for so long.
Everyone always asked about the diamonds, but life is more important. We don't want the diamonds back. We just want to see justice. We just want to know what happened to Mr al-Ruwaili.
The defendants had been trying throughout the case to get the judge, Somsak Konesuk, replaced. A few weeks before the verdict was due, they got their wish. Somsak was abruptly removed from the case. The Thai authorities claimed he had made an inappropriate decision to offer bail in a totally separate case years before in Saraburi, and so had to be removed from the Ruwaili murder trial. A more compliant judge, Rungsak Chongkrasan, was installed instead. The deep state was mobilising to ensure a verdict of not guilty.
Sure enough, on March 31, 2014, the new judge declared that the defendants were not guilty, due to insufficient evidence that any crime had been committed. There was no body, and the judge declared that the gold ring showed no signs of having been in a fire — perhaps not knowing that gold can’t be burned. The deep state had protected its people, at the expense of worsening relations with Saudi Arabia even further.
At a news conference at the Intercontinental Hotel after the verdict, Saudi charge d’affaires Alsheaiby said:
We feel very uncomfortable. We fear that the judgment did not reflect the reality.
Let me stress again, we are deeply disappointed by the ruling. We suspect that the case has been interfered. The defendants have already tried to change the judge many times in the past. I ask the media to decide what their intention really is.
He later told Khaosod English that he believed the change of judge in the case was intended to ensure the defendants were not convicted:
I feel uncomfortable to see such an honest judge removed and targeted by an investigation without due reason.
A statement from the Saudi foreign ministry said:
The judge presiding over the case had been replaced right before sentencing. This, coupled with negative political influence, paved the way for meddling in the country’s judicial system and, as such, in the final outcome of the trial.
This also indicates that the Thai government had not done enough to resolve the mystery surrounding al-Ruwaili’s assassination and that of three other Saudi diplomats, nor has it done enough to bring the murderers to justice. We urge the Thai government to do what is right in this case and put political factors aside.
Meanwhile, the main defendant, Somkid, had begun working as a leader of the so-called protest guards of the anti-democracy PDRC movement run by Suthep Thaugsuban, to burnish his credentials as a key member of the royalist cabal.
The case went to the Appeals Court, which upheld the not guilty verdict in July 2016, on the same grounds — insufficient evidence.
Today I thank the Supreme Court for being my last resort in the justice system, clearly showing that my subordinates and I didn’t commit the crime as accused.
But in fact, they did commit this crime. They just got away with it, because the Thai regime didn’t want to admit they had done anything wrong.
Wisdom as strong as a diamond
Mohammed Said Khoja died in 2011, aged 76.
After a royal pardon, the murderous and corrupt police general Chalor Kerdthes was spared the death penalty and walked out of prison in October 2013.
In March 2016, Kriangkrai Techamong, the man who stole the jewellery from the Saudi palace, declared he would become a monk for the rest of his life.
Chalor Kerdthes went to meet him at the ceremony. As the Bangkok Post reported:
At 78, Chalor, now partially paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, arrived at the ordination rite in the morning. He was released on parole in 2013 after serving 19 years in jail for murder in connection with the 1989 Saudi jewel theft case.
Chalor said he hurried to the rite after hearing Kriangkrai was entering the monkhood. He wanted any ill feeling between them to be cleared up and to seek atonement for the wrongs they may have done to each other.
"Those involved in the Saudi diamond saga and I have been through a lot. I truly believe the diamonds were a bad omen,” Chalor said.
Kriangrai told the Thai newspaper Thairath:
I am confident that all my misfortunes are the result of a curse from the Saudi diamond I stole, so I’ve decided to enter the monkhood for the rest of my life to redeem my bad karma.
Kriangkrai was ordained with the name Wachira Yano, meaning "one with wisdom as strong as a diamond".
He didn’t stick to his vows. He abandoned the monkhood in 2019, and is back living in a shack in Lampang.
"Now I live a simple life as a country man," he told the BBC. "I don't have much money. It's only enough to survive and feed my family. I guess that for me is true happiness."
Where’s the diamond?
Over the years, many myths have emerged about the blue diamond. It’s widely stated that during the 1990s, the wives of senior police generals were seen — and photographed — wearing the stolen Saudi gems at high-society events. In his leaked confidential cable on the blue diamond affair in 2010, US ambassador Eric John repeated these claims, and even stated that the blue diamond itself had been spotted several times:
Some wives of Thai elites, particularly police commissioners and generals, were photographed wearing jewelry strongly resembling the stolen Saudi jewels at various official or high-society events. While the Blue Diamond itself had been spotted several times on the wife of a police general in the 1990s, since the 2006 coup a number of anti-monarchy web boards and activists have alleged that the most recent sighting of the Blue Diamond was on Queen Sirikit. Where exactly the Blue Diamond is may well remain a mystery, even if the 20 year trail of death which followed it is ultimately resolved.
But in fact, this is just unsubstantiated gossip. Nobody has ever been sighted wearing the blue diamond — it would be an exceptionally reckless thing to do — and despite extensive research I have been unable to locate a single photograph showing police generals’ wives wearing stolen Saudi jewellery.
Like many of the myths and misconceptions about the blue diamond saga, the story that stolen gems had been sighted originated with Mohammed Said Khoja, who frequently made wildly untrue claims. He told William Branigin of the Washington Post in December 1994 that one gem — a sapphire — had been spotted two years earlier:
According to Khoja, hundreds of items are still missing, including a “priceless” 50-carat blue diamond, a necklace of “very rare” green diamonds, more gem-encrusted watches and necklaces, “rubies the size of chicken eggs” and a $2 million bracelet containing, among other gems, a large blue sapphire. The sapphire was reset with some stolen pearls to make a necklace that, Khoja said in an interview, was seen adorning the wife of a senior police general at a party two years ago.
There is no evidence this is true. Khoja was determined to damage the image of the Thai police however he could. He frequently made outlandish statements, but he only ever alleged one stolen sapphire and some pearls had been seen. But over time the tale was embellished and exaggerated, with several articles on the saga reporting that numerous gems and items of jewellery had been seen at high-society parties. It’s just a myth. It’s not true.
Going back through the alleged possessors of the blue diamond, Chalor Kerdthes was a murderous corrupt cop but it seems inconceivable he ever saw or handled it. He would surely not have been stupid enough to fly to Riyadh with his wife and two other Thai officials in March 1990 to return the gems to the Saudis if he really knew that by far the most valuable item remained missing and many of the other jewels had been replaced by fakes.
His kidnapping and torture of the gem dealer Santi Sithanakan and the abduction and murder of Santi’s wife and son in 1994 only make sense if we understand that Chalor had been humiliated and implicated after the Saudis claimed priceless gems remained missing, and was desperate to find them to salvage his career and reputation. He never found or even saw the blue diamond, and he believed Santi must have held onto it, so he tortured the jeweller and then kidnapped and ordered the killing of Santi’s wife and son to try to get him to confess.
But he never got any information because there is no evidence Santi ever had possession of the blue diamond either.
As for Kriangrai, he has no idea what he stole. He grabbed a large amount of loot from a palace in Saudi Arabia, and doesn’t even know what exactly he took.
There is no credible evidence that a priceless blue diamond was ever stolen from Saudi Arabia at all.
Blue diamonds are among the rarest and most sought after gems in the world. The blue colour comes from trace amounts of the chemical element boron, atomic number five, which changes the crystalline lattice structure of the diamond. When viewed under ultraviolet light, blue diamonds glow with a spooky blood-red phosphorescence.
Scientists say blue diamonds were formed more than a billion years ago deep beneath the surface of the earth, more than 400 miles underground, with earthquakes and the shifting of tectonic plates carrying boron far below into the uncharted interior of the planet. Besides their blue colour they are also among the most flawless diamonds in existence.
Large blue diamonds are so astonishingly rare that they make a mark on history, often leaving a trail of blood. They are fought over, and traded, and gifted, by the richest and most powerful families on the planet.
Elite gem dealers track them and sometimes buy and sell them, brokering deals or using auction houses. They know the background of all the most valuable stones — it’s their job to know where every gem came from and the chain of ownership.
The world’s most famous blue diamonds were found at the Kollur mines on the right bank of the river Krishna in Andhra Pradesh, India, which operated from the 16th to 19th centuries, with more than 50,000 men, women and children scrabbling into the earth in dangerous conditions to find gems. The Kollur mines sustained the Golconda kingdom in India during the 16th and 17th centuries. The capital city of Golconda now lies in ruins near the modern metropolis of Hyderabad.
The most famous blue diamond to emerge from the mines at Kollur is the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond, bought or stolen by French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in the 17th century when it was a crudely cut 112-carat stone. Tavernier sold the diamond to King Louis XIV of France in 1668, and in 1673, the stone was recut by Sieur Pitau, the court jeweller, to create a 67-carat gem. In 1749, King Louis XV set the diamond into a jewelled pendant for the Order of the Golden Fleece.
The gem was worn several times by Marie Antoinette, the notorious wife of Louis XVI, and vanished during the bloody chaos of the French revolution in 1792. The stone appears to have been acquired by diamond merchant Daniel Eliason from revolutionary France. It was smuggled to London, where it was cut into pieces. It was probably bought by Britain’s King George IV, but when he died in 1830 he was so indebted that some of his treasures had to be sold off to private buyers, and some others may have been stolen by his last mistress, Elizabeth Conyngham.
The biggest chunk of the diamond resurfaced in 1839 in the possession of Dutch-born London-based banker Henry Philip Hope. After his death, amid bankruptcy and conflict among his heirs, the jewel was acquired by New York gems dealer Joseph Frankels and Sons in 1901, as the New York Times reported. The story mentioned that the stone was the biggest blue diamond in the world. Nobody had ever heard of a bigger 50-carat blue diamond.
In 1908 the stone was sold again to a Turkish diamond merchant, Selim Habib, reportedly on behalf of Sultan Abdulhamid of the Ottoman Empire. By 1910 it had been bought by the legendary French jeweller Pierre Cartier, who sold it to US mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1911. By now, a legend had built up that the stone was cursed, as mentioned in this New York Times story from 1909.
The jewel eventually ended up in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, where it is currently displayed, insured for a value of at least $250 million. It was photographed being worn by actress Michelle Pfeiffer in an image for LIFE magazine in 1995.
Another fabled gem to emerge from the gravel pits of Kollur was the 35.56-carat Wittelsbach Diamond, which was acquired by King Filip IV of Castile during the 17th century. It was included in his dowry payment for the engagement of his 15-year-old daughter Margarita Teresa to Leopold I of Austria, who later became Holy Roman Emperor. Princess Margarita died in Vienna in 1673 aged just 21, and the gem was kept by the Habsburgs in Austria until 1722 when archduchess Maria Amalia married Prince Charles Albert of Bavaria, a member of the royal house of Wittelsbach, and the stone was brought to Munich. It became part of the Bavarian royal crown jewels, until the end of Germany’s monarchies following World War One.
After having their royal status stripped, the Wittelsbach family tried to sell the gem during the economic depression of the 1930s, but only finally found a buyer in 1964 via an auction at Christie’s.
The gem moved between various private dealers and was eventually sold again at auction in 2008 for $23.4 million to Laurence Graff, a London-based jeweller. It was the most ever paid for a diamond at the time, and according to the New York Times “may also have rendered the Wittelsbach blue, by weight, the most valuable commodity on earth”. Graff recut the diamond to remove some flaws, reducing it to 31 carats, and then sold it in 2011 to Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar, for $80 million.
Here’s a photo of the two diamonds side by side.
The Hope and Wittelsbach gems are the two most famous and valuable blue diamonds, and among the most precious of all stones on the planet. But if Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia really had a 50-carat blue diamond, it would dwarf them in value and magnificence. It would be the biggest and most fabulous blue diamond in the world, a legendary gemstone, smaller than massive stones like the Koh-i-Noor or the Daria-i-Noor but even more valuable because of its blue colour.
But the extraordinary jewel that the Saudis claim was stolen from them has never left any apparent trace on history, aside from being weaponised by the Saudi Arabian monarchy in their dispute with Thailand. Nobody has ever reported even having laid eyes on it. Nobody has explained where it came from, or when and where it was acquired, or who owned it previously.
The Saudi royals only became seriously wealthy in the mid-20th century after the kingdom’s vast oil reserves were discovered. Prince Faisal was born in 1945, so he must have acquired the gem sometime in the latter half of last century, if he ever acquired it at all, but there is no record anywhere of this extraordinary diamond ever having existed, or what its history was.
It’s exceptionally unlikely that one of the most rare and coveted gems in the world, a 50-carat blue diamond that nobody had ever seen or heard of before, could have somehow ended up in the possession of Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia without anyone having known about it.
It also seems strange that if Faisal really did acquire perhaps the most valuable gem on the planet that he would have just chucked it in a poorly secured safe among piles of tacky bling like diamond-encrusted gold Rolexes, pearl necklaces and silver salt shakers.
We don’t even know if the other gems that Faisal claimed to own were real, or if he’d been sold fakes in the first place and this was later blamed on the Thais. When they suddenly became extraordinarily wealthy in the 1970s, the Saudi royals made countless absurd purchases. They were insular and had little understanding of the wider world, and they were easily duped. Faisal may have bought huge amounts of fake gems, maybe even a fake blue diamond, with nobody noticing until the theft.
There is no evidence at all that a real blue diamond ever existed, and even if it did, there is also no evidence that it was ever stolen and taken to Thailand. The only reason anyone believes the diamond was real is the claims of the Saudis, and in particular Mohammed Said Khoja who repeatedly insisted this fabled gem had been stolen by the Thais.
The story that an unknown 50-carat blue diamond, the most magnificent and valuable stone in the world, but which nobody had ever heard of before, had been somehow acquired by the Saudi royals without anyone ever knowing about it, and then stolen by a Thai janitor, was never really credible.
The true curse of the blue diamond is that it caused so much misery and agony for three decades even though it probably never even existed at all.