Thailand is shaping to become a battleground for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The “Blue Diamond Saga,” which strained Saudi-Thai relations for over three decades, came to an abrupt and explosive end last year. By the end of 2022, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had visited Bangkok, signing five agreements on trade and tourism, and restarting direct flights between the two kingdoms while involving Kuwait in the process. It could be argued that this reorientation represents Riyad’s version of “pivot to Asia.” However, it is not the only GCC state with such intentions. In February 2023, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi and Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit announced that talks on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) are underway.
The UAE’s engagement likely stems from the need to counter Riyadh’s expansion into the UAE’s traditional sphere rather than to defer to Saudi Arabia’s dominant role in shaping policy trends for the Gulf. While Saudi Arabia was not actively involved, the UAE managed to establish itself as a significant trade partner for Thailand, ranking as its 4th largest import source and contributing to nearly 30% of Thailand’s petroleum imports. Why did the UAE decide to bolster its economic ties with Thailand only now? A simple explanation could be that this move is a reaction to Riyadh’s decision to forge closer ties with their South East Asian counterpart. Consequently, Abu Dhabi’s sudden and decisive efforts to enhance its trade relations with Thailand likely result from concerns about losing market share rather than merely paying homage to Riyadh.
The resolution of the Blue Diamond debacle has brought the two kingdoms closer than ever. However, the return of Thailand’s former prime minister and former owner of Manchester City FC, Thaksin Shinawatra, from exile could significantly favour the UAE. This businessman-turned-politician was ousted in a 2006 coup and had been living in self-imposed exile. In 2009, reports indicated that he was residing in Dubai, where he remained. Ironically, “going to Dubai” has become a Thai idiom for being exiled from one’s country.
The military junta, which has held power in Thailand since 2014 and consistently employed anti-Shinawatra rhetoric, did not make substantial demands regarding the former prime minister residing in the UAE. The long-standing military-backed parties, which had governed the country for nearly a decade, secured a third-place finish in the polls. The frontrunner Move Forward Party (MFP) attempted to form a government during three months of political deadlock, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Domestic observers attributed this outcome to MFP’s unwavering stance on abolishing lèse-majesté, putting them at odds with the senate, predominantly controlled by former junta parties aligned with monarchists.
In a dramatic turn of events, the runner-up Pheu Thai Party (PTP), founded by Shinawatra and closely linked to him, removed MFP from the equation and formed a coalition with former junta parties. PTP has played a pivotal role, having placed three prime ministers in office, including Shinawatra’s brother-in-law and sister. The most recent addition, his confidant Srettha Thavisin, received parliamentary approval as the current prime minister on the same day Shinawatra returned from exile and was promptly arrested. Domestic and international observers suspected a tit-for-tat dynamic between the former junta and PTP, as Shinawatra received preferential treatment upon arrival. Many question whether the former prime minister will serve his sentence in prison at all.
In the midst of all these developments, it is safe to assert that Shinawatra is currently at the peak of his influence since his time as prime minister, considering he is now within the country while his party holds power. While it is improbable that the UAE actively played a role in connecting PTP and the military, it is worth noting that Shinawatra spent a significant portion of the last decade in Dubai. This background could potentially influence his party’s economic, trade, and foreign policy dynamics with Gulf states.
The relationship between Gulf states and Thailand has predominantly been transactional, with the Blue Diamond Affairs serving as an exceptional case rather than the norm. While the resolution of this debacle has brought the two kingdoms closer, the UAE’s swift response has allowed it to maintain its status as Thailand’s foremost partner in the Arab Gulf. However, the rekindling of the Saudi-Thai relationship will, at the very least, challenge the UAE’s position as the sole Arab player.
There is limited evidence to suggest that other Gulf states also have specific interests in Thailand. Oman finalised an LNG deal with Thailand‘s state-owned energy firm in January 2023 but did not seem to pursue further development of the relationship. It is reasonable to assume that this expansion in trade and diplomatic ties with the Gulf marks the beginning of a broader trend. As European energy demand has stagnated or declined, and China has shown uncertainty about the sea route through the Strait of Malacca, leading to diversification of its energy imports, other developing Asian economies have become new arenas for Gulf competition. Thailand serves as an initial example of what is likely to be more to come.
The views expressed in the Near East Policy Forum are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Near East Policy Forum or any of its partner organisations.