Published 21 January 2015 by Susanne Dambeck

18 Nobel Laureates Support Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi

In an open letter to the French president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology KAUST in Jeddah, they urge him to speak up for the convicted Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi.

Certainly the 18 Nobel laureates discussed at length how to approach this subject and whom to address with their concerns for Badawi’s health and life. They chose the French president of the now five-year old KAUST university, the civil engineer Jean-Lou Chameau. The laureates write that “the fabric of international cooperation may be torn apart” over this issue. They continue, “We are confident that influential voices in KAUST will be heard arguing for the freedom of dissent.” The Saudi government wants KAUST to become an important international research hub, so these practically unveiled threats to withdraw cooperation might indeed touch a sore spot.

Badawi had been sentenced to 1,000 lashes in public, ten years in prison and a severe fine, for setting up a –now defunct– website promoting freedom of speech in the authoritarian kingdom. On January 9 this year, he had been flogged fifty times in front of a mosque in Jeddah after Friday prayers. His next flogging on Januar 16 was postponed because his wounds from the previous week’s flogging had not healed. This logic reveals the cruelty and absurdity of corporal punishment – someone has to heal in order to be hurt again.

Raif Badawi's picture on the back of a participant on March 11, 2015, druing the rally against violence and for freedom of speech. Photo: Alvaro, Wikimedia CCL
Raif Badawi’s picture on the back of a participant of the January 11 rally in Paris against violence and for freedom of speech. Photo: Alvaro, Wikimedia CCL

When Saudi Arabian officials supported the Paris march on January 11 against the cruel attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo four days earlier, and to promote freedom of speech, this caused an outcry in the West: this self-same government maintains the cruel sentence against Badawi. On the other hand, in Saudi Arabia the newest Mohammed cartoons by Charlie Hebdo have caused so much outrage that many refuse to talk about Badawi anymore – a classic standoff. Hopefully the Nobel laureate’s public initiative can make a difference. And everybody can sign the Amnesty International online petition for Badawi’w release here.

The original letter of 18 Nobel laureates
Dear Professor Chameau,

When the new ‘King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’ was inaugurated in 2009 it was recognised as a visionary attempt to ‘rekindle science in the Islamic world’. To mark the significance of the occasion, His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited heads of state and Nobel laureates to participate. The undersigned continue to take a profound and sympathetic interest in this visionary undertaking.

As members of the international scientific and scholarly community we owe it to KAUST to assist it in becoming a leading institution for education and research. All such academies have the right to assistance from others, world-wide, and everyone is heavily dependent on receiving that assistance.

We write out of concern that the fabric of international cooperation may be torn apart by dismay at the severe restrictions on freedom of thought and expression still being applied to Saudi Arabian society. We have no doubt that members of KAUST share that concern, aware that the cruel sentence passed, for example, on Mr. Raif Badawi who established a forum for open discussion, sent a shock around the world. We take real hope from the fact that the government of Saudi Arabia, responding to international outcry, is re-considering that sentence.

It is in this context of a new willingness to listen to pleas on behalf of tolerance that we write to you today. We are confident that influential voices in KAUST will be heard arguing for the freedom to dissent, without which no institution of higher learning can be viable. The time is ripe for new thinking after millions in Paris, supported by the government of Saudi Arabia, demonstrated on behalf of minority views. We are aware that change comes by degrees, but we write at this time since it seems, a mere five years into KAUST’s history, to be a crucial time for KAUST. The undersigned friends of KAUST will be there to support you in asserting the values of freedom that we are all agreed are essential to the future of a University in this twenty first century, and that will determine the success of the extraordinary venture which you lead.


Martin Chalfie, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, US
John Coetzee, Nobel Laureate, Literature, Australia/South Africa
Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Nobel Laureate, Physics, France
Richard Ernst, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, Switzerland
Gerhard Ertl, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, Germany
Shelly Glashow, Nobel Laureate, Physics, US
Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, US
Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, US
Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate, Physics, UK
Martin Karplus, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, US
Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, UK/US
Yuan Lee, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, Taiwan/US
Rudy Marcus, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, Canada/US
John Polanyi, Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, Canada
Richard Roberts, Nobel Laureate, Physiology or Medicine, US
John Sulston, Nobel Laureate, Physiology or Medicine, UK
Jack Szostak, Nobel Laureate, Physiology or Medicine, US
Eric Wieschaus, Nobel Laureate, Physiology or Medicine, US

Many of the laureates who signed the letter to KAUST are also regulars in Lindau. Among them (from left to right) are Richard Ernst, Jack Szostak, Dudley Herschbach (upper row), Brian Josephson, Martin Chalfie and Harry Kroto (lower row).


Susanne Dambeck

Susanne Dambeck is a science writer in English and German, and author of several nonfiction childrens' books. A political scientist by training, she has worked in politics, television and as a biographer. Apart from scientific findings, she is interested in people and in storytelling in different languages.