The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is between a rock and a hard place – asked to condemn the flogging of a Saudi blogger, perhaps try to influence the sentence, in a country that doesn’t forgive opposition, and shuns dissenters.
Last month, a group of 18 Nobel laureates, “friends of KAUST” sent an open letter addressed to KAUST’s president Jean-Lou Chameau to urge the scientists of the world-class institution to speak up against the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for starting a blog that criticized the Kingdom’s religious clerics and its politics. A Youtube video taken on a mobile phone showing the blogger receive the first 50 lashes shocked the international community, including said Nobel prizewinners who suggested that KAUST must decry the sentence or risk losing a measure of its credibility and world standing.
“The Badawi case once again highlights the responsibility of researchers and scientific institutions who collaborate with authoritarian and repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia to denounce human-rights abuses,” reads a Nature editorial, in the magazine’s 5 February 2015 edition.
But KAUST leaders, it seems, are not faltering under peer pressure, and according to a new story published last week also in Nature, the scientists will continue their efforts to “quietly” attempt to impact Saudi Arabia – and perhaps the entire Arab and Muslim world – through scientific enlightenment, not confrontation.
“KAUST is built on values that I espouse as a scientist, and the impact of KAUST will be felt over time, in major part through the influence of its graduates,” Mark Tester, an Australian who is associate director of KAUST’s Center for Desert Agriculture, told Nature magazine.
“We are making a real contribution to the country through education, and through research advances,” he adds.
KAUST argues that its very presence challenges the status quo – and indeed, as the story notes, in “stark exception to strict Saudi society, [KAUST’s] campus in Thuwal, 90 kilometres north of Jeddah, imposes no discrimination on the basis of sex, religion or ethnicity. Unlike in the rest of the country, women and men mingle, and women can also drive.”
These freedoms were reportedly a condition of many of the Western scientists who backed KAUST’s development.
A researcher familiar with KAUST, who spoke to Nature on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, says that if KAUST researchers protest, “it would have little effect on the regime and would risk providing ammunition for the institution’s critics in Saudi Arabia,” who according to the researcher, already have KAUST under scrutiny.
“KAUST’s existence is evidence of the kingdom’s desire to develop,” Tester says. “It will take time, and I ask that people give us time.”
The Nature editorial from last week, insisting on the urgency of speaking out to defend freedoms while acknowledging the complexity of Saudi Arabia’s culture and society, says however that there’s no conflict between defending individual freedoms and having a broader reach.
“Campaigns for persecuted individuals whose plights otherwise risk going unnoticed can also, as in Badawi’s case, send the powerful message that the world is watching.
“Scientists at KAUST are perhaps not best placed to speak out, being at risk of potential retribution. But Saudi Arabia benefits hugely, not least in terms of its international image, from prominent collaborations with Western research organizations and universities, which have a duty to use that leverage to speak out on abuses, and to call for greater democratic reforms — both publicly and in their private dealings with their Saudi partners.”