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How a dramatic jewel heist may have played a role in Saudi teen Rahaf Alqunun’s fate

The Saudi teen whose pleas for asylum went viral has been resettled in Canada.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, pauses as she addresses the media during a press conference in Toronto, Canada, on January 15, 2019.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, pauses as she addresses the media during a press conference in Toronto, Canada, on January 15, 2019.
Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman, burst onto the international stage earlier this month after she fled her family during a vacation in Kuwait, saying that they were abusive and that she feared for her life.

After taking a flight from Kuwait to Thailand, where she spent two days locked in a hotel room broadcasting her pleas on social media, Thai authorities allowed her to meet with United Nations officials and she was granted asylum in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said offering the young woman asylum “is something that we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights and to stand up for women’s rights around the world.” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who met Alqunun at the airport, called her a “very brave new Canadian.”

Alqunun’s story captured the world’s attention, in large part due to her viral pleas for help on social media. But what’s often missing from the narrative is how much of her fate may have been impacted by history — specifically, the strained diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Thailand.

In fact, a dramatic jewel heist and the diplomatic fallout that ensued may have been a major reason Alqunun ended up getting asylum in Canada.

Alqunun successfully fled her family and used social media to plea for help

Alqunun’s family was vacationing in Kuwait when the teenager escaped, boarded a flight to Bangkok, and locked herself in a hotel room for two days after Thai authorities reportedly threatened to deport her. In videos that she circulated on social media, Alqunun said that she had renounced Islam, which is considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, and she feared that being returned to her family would result in her death.

Her plan was to eventually seek refuge in Australia. But the Saudi teen said in a video she posted to her Twitter account and in subsequent tweets that Thai authorities had confiscated her passport and told her she could not stay in the country legally.

When officials from the Thai government and staff from Kuwait Airways, the airline she flew to Bangkok, came to her door, Alqunun used mattresses and chairs to block the entrance. “I’m not leaving my room until I see UNHCR,” she said, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in a video she posted to a newly created Twitter account.

Thailand’s ruling government, a junta, is known for its stringent deportation policies, and the Saudi government had been all but convinced Alqunun would be returned home and even said as much in a statement.

However, Thailand ultimately decided not to deport Alqunun. Instead, it allowed her to meet with UNHCR representatives. Five days after she fled her family, the UN declared her a refugee, and a few days after that, Alqunun was on a plane to Canada, where she has since been granted asylum.

There are probably a couple of reasons why this happened.

According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, it was partly the outpouring of international support for Alqunun (and the scrutiny that came with it) that forced the Thai government to act. Alqunun was “smart in her communication strategies and instincts,” he told me, and “international human rights agencies acted swiftly and gathered a critical mass within hours.”

However, there’s another important element that could have played a role in the story.

An infamous, decades-old jewel heist may have played a role in Alqunun’s fate

Thailand and Saudi Arabia have had a tense political relationship, dating back to a series of dramatic events that took place in the 1980s and ’90s — including an infamous jewel theft from a Saudi prince and several subsequent murders, all of which resulted in a state of “diplomatic nightmare” between the two countries.

In 1989, a Thai gardener named Kriangkrai Techamong was working in the palace of Saudi Prince Faisal bin Fahd in Riyadh. In the dead of night, Kriangkrai climbed a wall, slipped into a bedroom, and opened the family safe. He then made away with 200 pounds of jewels and gems worth more than $20 million — including a rare blue diamond, necklaces and watches lined with diamonds and sapphires, and, according to the Washington Post, “rubies the size of chicken eggs.” (The entire incident later became known as the “Blue Diamond Affair.”)

Kriangkrai was one of many servants on the opulent palace grounds, and he later told authorities he thought his theft would go largely unnoticed because the family was so fabulously wealthy.

Though the full details of the heist have not been made public, the Daily Beast reported that he may have used a vacuum cleaner bag to sneak out the loot — a move that would not have seemed suspicious, since Kriangkrai sometimes worked as a palace janitor as well.

Kriangkrai shipped the treasure home and then made his own way back to Thailand a short while later. He sold off the stolen jewels to a local dealer and thought he had gotten away with it, but authorities found and arrested him within a few months of his return.

Thai officials then located the stolen items and returned them to the prince — or so they had thought. Saudi officials discovered that only about 20 percent of the jewels were real, and the rest were forgeries.

Wild allegations were thrown back and forth. There were reports that the wives of Thai diplomats were parading around Bangkok wearing the original jewels, and senior Thai police officers were accused of being involved in the crime.

To keep some semblance of diplomatic ties, Thailand charged the senior police official who led the original investigation with embezzlement in 1991, after recovering approximately $120,000 worth of the real jewels, which had been sold by Kriangkrai’s original dealer to various parties in the country. However, Saudi Arabia was less than satisfied, since the blue diamond was — and remains — missing.

The dealer, Santhi Sithakanan, was abducted a few years later and threatened, and his wife and son were found dead in a car shortly after. The truth about their deaths has never been made public, but some suspected it was the work of senior Thai police officials who had been involved in the scandal.

Relations between Thailand and Saudi Arabia hit a real low point after four Saudi diplomats who had arrived in Thailand a month after Kriangkrai’s arrest turned up dead near Bangkok. The cause of their deaths has not been revealed, but the timing was definitely strange. According to Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, people speculated at the time that there was a connection between their deaths and the case of the missing jewels.

In response, the Thai diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah were downgraded to the less powerful charge d’affairs level, a largely symbolic move to express Saudi discontent with Thailand. Hundreds of thousands of Thai workers in Saudi Arabia lost their work permits and were forced to return home. At one point, Thai Muslims who wanted to take pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca were denied permission to enter the country.

Pongsudhirak, the political science professor in Thailand, told me that after nearly three decades, relations haven’t improved much. “The Saudis appear prepared to move on, but relations are still contentious,” he said, due to the fact that senior Thai police officers involved in the investigations have been promoted. “The thaw,” he said, “is moving at a glacial pace.” And these still-frosty relations may have contributed to Thailand’s decision not to deport Alqunun.

Alqunun eventually received asylum and is now living in Canada

Despite the less than stellar ties between Saudi Arabia and Thailand, Alqunun still easily could have been deported. On January 6, the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok even issued a statement indicating she would be returned to her family in Kuwait.

And in addition to the tense relationship with Riyadh, it’s worth noting that the ruling Thai junta government does not have the best relationship with UNHCR. According to Pongsudhirak, relations with UNHCR are generally stronger with “democratic governments, and more prickly and contentious under authoritarian and junta-led” ones.

Kurlantzick told me that in 2015 and 2016, Thailand deported 62 Uighur Muslims back to China despite a “very angry” protest by UNHCR. And in 2015, the Chinese-born Swedish citizen and scholar Michael Gui went missing in Thailand after publishing books about the Chinese government that contained sensational claims about members of President Xi Jinping’s cabinet. Thai authorities may have facilitated his rendition back to his birth country, Kurlantzick said.

There’s also the fact that Thailand’s ruling junta is planning to hold elections in the coming months, and the international attention that Alqunun’s social media presence attracted has not been welcome.

“Happy endings help,” Pongsudhirak told me. If Alqunun were deported to Saudi Arabia to face what she claims is her inevitable death, Thailand would face more “international condemnation.” That’s something that would not “help the military regime’s efforts to convert its junta rule to an elected government.”

But instead, the teenager managed to flee to Canada — and a Thai gardener’s jewel theft, and the ensuing decades of diplomatic drama, may be partly to thank.

Mythili Sampathkumar is a journalist based in New York who covers foreign affairs, climate change, and business news. She was previously a staff reporter for the Independent, and her work has appeared in the LA Times, NBC News, PRI, and Foreign Policy.