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Thailand 'salesman' PM sees huge potential in KSA, kingdom 'open for business'

BANGKOK: Nothing symbolized the delicate balance Thailand manages between East and West than the Thai prime minister's proposal to be interviewed by Arab News at a local Starbucks in Chinatown on Chinese New Year's Day, a big celebration.

But then again Shretha Tavisin is not your typical politician. Before becoming prime minister, he was a successful businessman who knew how to run his schedule like a Swiss watch. In fact, the politician-turned-property tycoon says his job is to „sell Thailand” right away, something that hasn't happened in the past, but now – almost six months later – says. The priority is to travel and tell the world that his country is open for business.
„People don't know the business scene in Thailand because, for the last nine, ten years, Thailand hasn't gone out to sell Thailand. But since taking office (in August last year), it's been my number one priority, the number one priority, to travel and travel to the world that Thailand is open for business,” he said.

„Whether it's for investment, whether it's for trade, people exchanging tourism, education, technical assistance, etc.”

It's no exaggeration (or so the proof is in the pudding, or rice pudding), Shretha arrived at the gathering in a red t-shirt, the traditional color for Chinese New Year. As we walked out of the American coffee house into bustling Chinatown, he was swarmed by tourists and locals, some Chinese, some Europeans and many Thais. A Danish family was more than happy to take an unexpected selfie with the kingdom's prime minister.

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Shretha quips, referring to the local tradition that you shouldn't work during Chinese New Year. But he jokes: “People say that if you work during Chinese New Year, you have to work hard all year round. But I'm working on it. (And) every year, when I take New Year's Day off, I still have to work hard every day.

Asked how Thailand balances its East and West relations, particularly China (its second-largest trading partner and has an ethnic component and cultural influence) with the United States (Bangkok's top trading partner, which also does not cooperate on defense), he says: „Of course, we are a neutral country. Because. We're not contradicting anybody here. You see Eastern Europeans, you see Russians, you see Chinese, you see Indians, you see Japanese, you see Koreans, you see Europeans, you see Americans.

“Because our diplomatic stance is (on the way), we are not part of the conflict. We believe in sustainable peace and general prosperity.

Thai Prime Minister Shretha Thavisin participated in the ASEAN delegation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Riyadh last October. For Prime Minister Shretha, her top priority is to travel and tell the world that her country is open for business.
(SPA Photo)

Highlighting the benefits of investing in her country, Shretha said that good facilities should be provided to attract skilled foreign workers.

„It's very important for business people,” he said. „For example, good international schools. Immigrants, like you, when you come, you come with a family. Where do your children go to school? You have to make sure you have good international schools.

As a former businessman, he clearly sees where the big opportunities lie, and one country is at the top of the list: Saudi Arabia. In fact, this interview with Arab News was originally requested to mark the second anniversary of the re-establishment of Saudi-Thai relations, which had been suspended since the early 1990s until January 2022 due to a diplomatic incident.

Since reconciliation, the relationship has seen a massive improvement with new trade, investment and people-to-people exchanges. However, Shretha says there is great potential for deeper ties, having been so impressed by what she saw when she visited the kingdom last October.

On the sidelines of the GCC-ASEAN Summit in Riyadh on October 20, 2023, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Prime Minister Shreta Thawisin of Thailand. (SPA/File Photo)

“I met SABIC,” he said. „They want to do all the agricultural stuff. I met Aramco, the world's biggest oil company. I met PIF, the sovereign wealth fund. I met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

„I am in awe of the scale of what you are trying to do and what the country is capable of. Again, the cross-border investment you have made around the world is something the world will admire and copy.

“You don't just have money power. You have the ability to read what you don't have and try to keep your country safe. For example, food safety is very important.

„Logistics, The Line (NEOM's signature project), Riyadh Airport – your airport will be twice the size of Dubai Airport in the next 10 years. I mean, commendable. You know, it really is.”

Saudi Arabia's environmental policies, including the Saudi Green Initiative, have begun planting 10 billion trees across the kingdom in the coming years, an area where Thailand can provide support – including exporting saplings for replanting.

Saudi Arabia's green plan aims to plant 10 billion trees under the Saudi Green Initiative. (provided)

One of Thailand's biggest exports is manpower. Thai workers are found in many fields around the world and are noted for their strong work ethic and friendliness. There are currently around 8,000 Thai workers in Saudi Arabia. A warming of relations means this number could rise quickly.

According to him, the recent escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict has badly shaken one of the most lucrative markets for skilled Thai workers, namely Israel. A Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 last year killed around 1,200 people, including at least 39 Thai nationals. The militants took 240 hostages, including 32 Thai workers.

So far, 23 of them have been freed in mediation by a third party in a separate hostage deal between Thailand and Hamas. Shretha wants the rest of the hostages to be released.

„Are we part of the conflict? We are not part of the conflict. All we want is peace and general prosperity. All we want is security for our people. All we want is the release of the remaining eight hostages. At this stage, we still don't know if they are alive,” he said. said.

“Should we blame? No. We went there to grow the economy. They are not spies. They were in the field.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is seen on a video monitor talking to Thai nationals freed by Hamas captives as they arrive at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on November 30, 2023. (AFP/File)

Despite harming Thai citizens in the October 7 attack, Thailand has stuck firmly to its policy of neutrality and joined other countries in calling on Israel to end its retaliation in the Gaza Strip.

„We want a ceasefire,” Shretha said. „(When I talk to world leaders, I ask them): 'How do we end the conflict?'

„How can we talk about green energy? How can we talk about economic growth? How can you talk about trade and commerce when people are dying? I mean, that's not right. That's not right,” he said.

This is not the only regional conflict that Thai workers need to extract. When the crisis erupted in Sudan on April 15 last year, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace and allowed the Royal Thai Air Force to evacuate its citizens from the war-torn East African nation.

„We are grateful for that,” Shretha said.

In this photo taken on March 3, 2022, Saudi officials welcome Thai pilgrims as they arrive at Jeddah's King Abdulaziz International Airport on the first Saudia flight to fly directly from Thailand to Saudi Arabia after a gap of three decades. (X: @HajMinistry)

About 5 percent of Thailand's population is Muslim. Every year, thousands of Thai nationals travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj. This continued during the long years of severed relations between the two countries.

„Millions of people were going to Makkah,” Shretha said.

Speaking to Arab News, Thai Muslims say the government wants to increase the quota of pilgrims allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj and the number of flights on offer.

“I don't know that they don't have enough provisions. Apparently, they already own their planes. As the government comes from the people, they should listen to what the people want,'' he said.

After an interview at Starbucks in Bangkok's Chinatown on Saturday, Chinese New Year, Prime Minister Shretha told Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. He received a gift of dates from Abbas. (A photo by Abdulrahman Fahd bin Shulhab)

Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces have seen decades of unrest. As a result, Shretha says her government is working to improve the local economy in the south to promote stability.

„If you've followed Thailand for a long time, there's a problem in the deep south, about three or four provinces in the deep south, there's been some trouble recently,” he said.

„I would like to see more people living in rural areas getting more income from agricultural products.”

Shretha says she wants citizens to enjoy more personal freedom and more prosperity.

„Generally, people's well-being,” he said. “More money in the pocket. Free your heart to do what they want and be what they want.

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