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Dennis Horak was Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2018. He retired in 2018 after a 31-year diplomatic career.

Friday’s release of a declassified intelligence report on the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi will add little to what was already surmised about the incident: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was responsible for the killing.

The evidence will not be enough to convince those who doubt MBS’s culpability. But those who already believed that MBS ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s death, including many in Washington, will use the report to renew calls for actions aimed at holding the Crown Prince accountable, including the imposition of sanctions against him personally or against the kingdom as a whole.

Rumblings emerged from the White House shortly after the report’s release suggesting that President Joe Biden has ruled out direct punishment of MBS. The risks to a relationship that the U.S. deeply values was seen as too high to jeopardize.

So in the wake of a report that doesn’t much change the facts on the ground nor the administration’s apparent approach, the question now is: what happens next?

The naming and shaming of MBS will be welcomed by many, but it will do little to satisfy Riyadh’s many critics in the U.S.’s Congress, Western parliaments, or the media. Pressure will likely continue to mount for some kind of action, with many no doubt still hoping that, at the very least, MBS could be removed from the Saudi line of succession.

While the removal of a senior Saudi royal is not unprecedented – King Saud was deposed by his siblings in 1964, and MBS himself became Crown Prince when his cousin Mohammad bin Nayef was unceremoniously moved aside in 2017 – deposing MBS was always going to be a long shot. MBS retains the support of his father, his economic and social reforms have made him immensely popular domestically, and his demonstrated willingness to strike brutally against opponents, even royal family members, has made moving against him a risky proposition. With the U.S. now seemingly unwilling to press the case, the prospects of the Crown Prince’s departure are now even more remote.

The likelihood that Saudi Arabia as a whole will be subject to sanctions in response to this declassified report also seems low. While Mr. Biden vowed on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” he seems unprepared to follow through as President, given the value his administration had demonstrably placed on preserving the bilateral relationship. And though other Western democracies could also feel pressure from their own constituencies to respond to the intelligence report, they will likely be equally unwilling to sacrifice their own interests in the kingdom, especially in the absence of U.S. leadership on this issue.

The fact is, Saudi Arabia has broad geopolitical significance. Its leverage over global oil markets, its valued co-operation on counterterrorism and its influence in a region prone to instability makes Riyadh a global player whether we like it or not. With MBS likely to be the Saudi king for decades to come, tackling issues of importance to the West will require dealing with him.

Faced with this reality, there are few palatable options in finding the right response to the findings of this report. Dealing with tyrants is never easy or comfortable. Accepting the West’s limitations in the matter will not be satisfying.

Saudi Arabia is, sadly, not unique in its willingness to cross the accepted international norms of behaviour. The West holds its nose and deals with a number of countries simply because it must; China and Russia most readily come to mind.

But what the U.S. and others do have with the Kingdom and MBS is leverage, and they need to use it. Washington values what Riyadh brings to the relationship, but the Saudis need U.S. security and diplomatic support. These are chips to play. Notwithstanding the free pass the Biden administration seems to be offering over Mr. Khashoggi’s death, the White House has signalled that it is prepared to engage the Saudis more constructively and, if necessary, harshly, in its much-vaunted recalibration of bilateral ties.

Handled deftly, the U.S. can use its influence to advance and expand the Saudi reform efforts, end the horrendous war in Yemen, and rein in MBS’s worst instincts. The Saudis seem to have dodged a diplomatic bullet in this instance, but they have to know – or be made to understand – that there is no guarantee that they will be as fortunate if there is a next time.

This approach won’t provide justice for Jamal Khashoggi, nor will it hold MBS directly accountable. But if it does prevent future extrajudicial killings and if the lives of Saudis and Yemenis can in fact be improved, then at least something positive will have come out of this horrific affair. Unfortunately, it’s probably the best we can hope for.

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