The West is helping to keep Raif Badawi in prison in Saudi Arabia

When Raif Badawi, a liberal Saudi activist and blogger, was flogged in public in Jeddah in January, for "insulting Islam" and other violations of Saudi law, it triggered international outrage. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment and 1,000 lashes, to be administered weekly, 50 strikes at a time.

The verdict has recently been confirmed by the Saudi supreme court, although the remainder of the flogging seems to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely. Badawi's supporters have declared 17 June, the third anniversary of his arrest, a day of action. Badawi has some supporters inside Saudi Arabia, but they are unlikely to take to the streets.

All governments, whether absolute monarchies or liberal dictatorships, rest on the consent of their citizens. Apart from Islamic radicals, most Saudis grant that consent. "When Saudis look around the region, they see chaos, anarchy and violence and they don't want that," says Thomas Lippman, author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge. "They live in a peaceful and prosperous country, where they have freedom to live and work where they want and the legitimacy of the monarchy is accepted. If you want to make money, then good for you. But you talk politics at your peril."

Western countries have called for Badawi's release, but Saudi officials know that strategic interests – oil and regional stability – triumph over humanitarian concerns, especially in Washington DC. Compare the United States' response to the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, when Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, and a kosher grocery store, with the funeral of the Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh a few days later.

World leaders flocked to the march in Paris to protest against the terrorist attacks. The United States sent the American ambassador. Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, was in Paris, but did not attend. A spokesman for the White House later admitted it had been a mistake not to send a high-level envoy. In Riyadh, at least, there were plenty of those. President Obama's bi-partisan delegation to King Abdullah's funeral included National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, two former secretaries of state in James Baker and Condoleezza Rice and CIA director John Brennan.

Nor has the European Union shown moral leadership. The EU has been "voicing its concern to the Saudi authorities" about Badawi, says a spokesperson, and calls for the lashes to be suspended while trying to engage the Saudi authorities on the need to respect freedom of speech. Such limp language is not enough, says Michael Williams, a former senior British and UN diplomat, now at the Royal Institute for International Affairs. The EU should issue the strongest diplomatic protest. "The EU stands for the spirit of Europe. It must make it clear that this sentence is completely unacceptable. The EU has to take a stand here. Pressure can make a difference." Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations, and Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, should issue a personal appeal to King Abdullah, says Williams.

Badawi's harsh sentence is meant to teach a very public lesson to other potential dissenters, says Hussein Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "Woe betide anyone who does something like this, raising questions of religion and state."

There are signs that the Kingdom is rattled by the continuing criticism. The judiciary is independent, say Saudi officials. The Saudi foreign ministry issued a statement rejecting "any form of interference" in the country's internal affairs, and any "impingement on its sovereignty or the independence and impartiality of its judiciary".

King Abdullah's successor, King Salman, has good ties with both the West and the country's religious conservatives, says Ibish. The conservatives are confident that the country's relationship with the West is not determined by human rights issues. But Badawi also has some friends inside the kingdom. Keeping him in the international spotlight will also help.

"There are people in Saudi Arabia," says Ibish, "who would argue that whatever the state wanted to communicate has been done, that's enough and Badawi should be released. I believe the King will commute the sentence. I do not believe Badawi will receive the flogging. The point is to make the point, then they can back off".