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opinion

Rashid Husain Syed is a Toronto-based journalist, consultant and energy analyst.

For a few months in late 2018, Saudi Arabia’s international reputation finally appeared to endure real damage. Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident and columnist for The Washington Post, was suffocated and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and reports suggest that the kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, likely knew about the slaying. The murder led to worldwide condemnation and – in places like Canada – unease about economic ties to a country that has the second-largest reserves of the world’s petroleum, and pumps many of those petrodollars into arms-makers in the West.

And yet, at Davos – where political leaders and elites mingle annually in the name of the global liberal order – we’ve seen just how little the world really cares about that moral reckoning.

The agenda of the Saudi contingent, one of the largest ever sent to Davos, was packed with meetings with international peers, none of whom pulled out, as many did at the Saudi investment conference in Riyadh in October. Their message was clear: The storm has passed, and it is time to move past the Khashoggi saga. And Saudi Arabia is willing to splash out to persuade countries to elide their morality over the killing of a journalist.

The largest billboard in Davos signalled as much: “Invest Saudi: The Future-Forward Economy.” Two Saudi public-sector companies, Aramco and Sabic, were among the 100 strategic partners of this year’s World Economic Forum. And it spent its time dangling hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of contracts to Western companies.

Last Monday, while unveiling the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia announced three-dozen agreements totalling US$54-billion with major Western firms. Boeing agreed to manufacture airplane parts in the kingdom; French defence company Thales SA and CMI of Belgium signed agreements for military-industry co-operation. IBM signed a deal for research into cloud computing and artificial intelligence, and fellow U.S. firm Eastman Chemical announced a US$500-million plastic-resin plant in co-operation with a Saudi company. MBS is also expected to visit Pakistan and India next month, with possible stopovers in China and South Korea, in an effort to cement economic relationships with the East.

Swiss President Ueli Maurer even publicly conceded that his country has moved on. “We have long since dealt with the Khashoggi case," Mr. Maurer told Swiss news agency SDA. “We have agreed to continue the financial dialogue and normalize relations again.”

Even beyond Davos, Saudi Arabia appears to be getting out of the woods politically, too. On Monday, MBS met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the royal court in Riyadh, where they discussed a range of issues, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, threats from Iran and the Saudi response to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. And last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had a friendly phone call with MBS to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen; the next day, Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen, praised the Saudi leadership, saying they have been “incredibly helpful” in keeping the fragile ceasefire with the Houthi rebels intact.

Slowly but surely, the Khashoggi saga is being pushed to the sidelines. But it is not the time to move on.

The Saudis' typical irritation at even the smallest hint of criticism of its human-rights record continues apace, even as common people on the streets of Riyadh, Jeddah and Al-Khobar are afraid to talk or even exchange e-mails critical of the government. Crackdown on domestic dissent continues, and Saudi activists and scholars are reportedly behind bars; some are reported to have died because of the conditions and torture in prison. And thanks to the U.S.'s interest in bringing Tehran to its knees, the Saudis' deadly war on Yemen continues. And despite prodding from others, including Mr. Pompeo, moves to isolate Qatar linger on.

And for its efforts in calling out these human-rights violations, Ottawa received only tepid support from its Western allies. Riyadh’s antagonistic position against Canada – it has ceased new trade deals with the country and expelled the Canadian ambassador – hasn’t changed, and there appears to be no real political incentive to do so.

Meanwhile, the MBS aide who was fired after being accused of masterminding the Khashoggi murder, is reportedly regularly in touch with the Crown Prince, who considers him a trusted confidante. The Washington Post, citing unnamed U.S. and Saudi sources, reported that MBS continues to seek advice from Saud al-Qahtani, who has even been spotted at the prince’s court.

Will MBS get off scot-free? Unfortunately, these developments suggest that the answer is yes. It turns out that the price for a country’s morality isn’t so expensive, after all.