When the leaders of many of the world’s democracies flocked to Saudi Arabia last week to offer their condolences on the death of King Abdullah, many critics called it hypocrisy. They did so, too, when Saudi officials marched in Paris two weeks earlier to defend freedom of expression following the terrorist attacks there.

After all, Saudi Arabia comes near the bottom of the world league in terms of freedoms, such as the right to dissent, to freedom of expression or to practise any religion other than Islam, and has a track record of brutal human-rights abuses and political and religious oppression. But the kingdom’s oil and strategic geopolitical importance in the turbulent Middle East means that it has long enjoyed strong ties with the West.

Some scientists have been drawn to the desert state too, not least to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, a graduate university created by the king in 2009, which has a US$20-billion endowment. The university is the flagship of Abdullah’s efforts both to build a knowledge-based society in a country with little science base and to help distance science and education from the stifling influence and control of conservative clerics.

As we report on page 18, some of these scientists have become caught up in the controversy over Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record. An international outcry has been sparked by the Saudi authorities’ flogging of the activist Raif Badawi in a public square in January — the first 50 of a sentence of 1,000 lashes, along with 10 years in prison, for posts that he introduced on his website for social and political discussion.

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. Eighteen Nobel laureates explicitly raised that point in a letter last month to the president of KAUST, calling for “influential voices in KAUST” to speak out against Badawi’s brutal treatment, arguing that no university can be viable in a society lacking basic freedoms.

Some scientists and their institutions, such as the US National Academies of Science, have a long history of speaking out to defend freedoms, and of campaigning on behalf of persecuted academics and activists, although too many others remain silent. Still, there are concerns that such lobbying has lessened in recent years, with several scientific human-rights bodies, including those of the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shifting their focus to scientific diplomacy and softer human-rights issues, such as access to education, clean water, food and health care. Some have argued that working to open up repressive countries is more effective in the long term than publicly embarrassing them over individual cases of abuse.

Change cannot be expected to come quickly in Saudi Arabia.

Others have rightly expressed concern that scientists and their institutions may be increasingly reluctant to speak out to avoid jeopardizing collaborations with countries, including China, that have dismal human-rights records. The many Western universities that have partnerships with KAUST and other Saudi institutions benefit from petrodollars, and the leading researchers who have joined the KAUST faculty benefit from competitive salaries and state-of the-art laboratory conditions. Western universities have also gained from the influx of hundreds of thousands of fee-paying Saudi students under a generous scholarship scheme established by King Abdullah.

What can scientists there achieve by speaking out? Foreign researchers working at KAUST who were contacted by Nature seem sincerely convinced that, by educating and broadening the horizons of young Saudi Arabians, they can do more good by working to help to slowly open up the regime. The scientists are to be applauded for their efforts — this journal has long backed scientific cooperation as a form of diplomacy, for example with Iran, and has similarly opposed proposed scientific boycotts of Israel.

Unfortunately, change cannot be expected to come quickly in Saudi Arabia because of the unique complexity of its society and culture. As Europe’s Enlightenment was taking shape in the eighteenth century, pushing back against religious authority and ushering in modern science, the Arabian peninsula was heading in the opposite direction. The Saudi state was born at the time out of an unholy alliance between Ibn Saud, a tribal leader, and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the leader of Wahhabism, an extreme fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam. That pact shapes Saudi rule and society to this day, resulting in a symbiotic agreement, with the conservative clerics giving the monarchy its support in return for their power to impose a society based on radical Islam, and an extreme form of sharia law.

But there does not need to be a conflict between defending individual cases — either publicly or by more diplomatic, behind-the-scenes pressure — and broader outreach efforts. We need both. 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.