The democracy is in the detail: a closer look at the Arab world’s scores

Democracy in the Arab world has been a challenge for the past centuries. The majority of democracy indices have rated Arab countries low on the scale. But what is driving the scores low? And what aspects present a more positive outlook on the state of democracy in the Arab world?

Can we measure democracy?

Measuring democracy is challenging as it is hard to numerically assess aspects such as freedom or civil liberties. The attempts to measure democracy have shortcomings as they can fail in capturing local dynamics, traditions, and culture. Measurements are bound to fall through the crack of trying to find an applicable method across the broad spectrum. With that in mind, it is still interesting to explore what is the situation of democracy and governance in the region.

Two indices: One region

The oldest index is the Freedom in the World (FIW) index which has been reported since 1973 by Freedom House. The FIW index looks at two major categories with relevant subcategories:

  1. Political Rights
    1. Electoral Process: this includes questions on whether head of states are democratically elected, if elections are free and fair, and if electoral laws and frameworks are fair and representative.
    2. Political Pluralism and Participation: includes political parties rights to organize and their ability to form viable opposition groups.
    3. Functioning of Government: this assessment looks at corruption and accountability.
  1. Civil Liberties:
    1. Freedom of Expression and Belief: includes the presence of free media, the ability of all religious groups to practice, and other forms of cultural expressions.
    2. Associational and Organizational Rights: includes rights to protest and demonstrate, form labor unions, and non-governmental organizations.
    3. Rule of Law: includes the presence of an independent judiciary and equal treatment under the law.
    4. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: includes freedoms such as gender equality and the freedom to travel, own property, and businesses.

Freedom House assigns numerical values for those categories and based on those assessments categorize countries as Free, Partly Free, and Not Free.

The other major index is Democracy Index (DI) measured by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The index looks at five categories:

  1. electoral process and pluralism;
  2. civil liberties;
  3. the functioning of government;
  4. political participation;
  5. and political culture.

Categories are rated on a 0 to 10 scale, and the index is the simple average of the five category indexes. Based on the scores, countries are grouped into Full Democracies, Flawed Democracies, Hybrid Regimes, and Authoritarian Regimes.

So…how are we doing overall?

The picture does not look great for the region (surprise!). In 2017, only Tunisia was listed as a Free country according to the FIW index. Comoros, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Morocco were categorized as Partly Free. Similar results were found by the DI where Tunisia was ranked 69th in the world with a flawed democracy. Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Iraq were ranked as hybrid regimes while the rest of the Arab world were authoritarian ones.

What is driving our scores this low?

What the indices have in common is that they provide an overall score. However, to fully understand why the scores do not produce favorable results, we can assess the democratic deficiencies. One of the major causes bringing scores down is the electoral process which not only looks at whether the head of state is elected but also at the fairness of the electoral framework and transparency of the results. 10 out of the 22 Arab countries scored less than 2 out of 10 for the electoral process and pluralism category according to the DI. As a matter of fact, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and Syria scored a zero on that category.

The functioning of government is another subcategory where five countries (Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, Syria) scored less than 2 out of 10. Functioning of the government looks at aspects of government control over all its territory, the influence of foreign entities on internal affairs, and the perceptions of legitimacy and corruption. Those countries have been facing severe political strain in the form of wars and conflicts that hinders the state’s ability to function at its most basic levels.

Although the overall scores are not encouraging, digging into the subcategories of the Arab world, you can find glimpses of hopes in the region. Political participation – which includes rate of participation in elections, political parties, demonstrations as well as women and minority representations- remains one of the better performing aspects with Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon scoring more than 7/10. Political culture which includes aspects of people’s perception and acceptance of democracy and its importance also presents a positive outlook. Nine out of the twenty two Arab countries scored above 5. Still, the region scores below the world average in this category, showing a big scope for improvement.

Arab Spring….unfulfilled expectations

Variations in the countries that witnessed revolutions and political changes are puzzling. For instance, Libya witnessed a huge increase in political pluralism and participation by seven points from 2012 to 2013 but then decline to pre-2012 scores. Egypt witnessed an increase in almost all democracy indicators between 2012 and 2014, but currently scores below its 2012 threshold.

It can’t all be bad

The World Governance Indicators (WGI) of the World Bank attempt to measure perceptions of governance. The key indicators are:

  1. Voice and Accountability (VA) – citizens ability to choose their government, as well as freedom of expression and association, and a free media.
  2. Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism (PV) – government’s stability and chances of collapse due to unconstitutional or violent means. It also assesses government’s ability to formulate and implement policies.
  3. Government Effectiveness (GE) – the quality of public services, policy formulation and implementation.
  4. Regulatory Quality (RQ) – the quality of public policies and regulations that permit and promote private sector development.
  5. Rule of Law (RL) – the extent to which rules of society are followed assessed through the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police, and the courts.
  6. Control of Corruption (CC) – measured in the amount of public power used for private gain.

For those indicators, we can see indications of additional, although subtle changes in three categories:

  1. Government effectiveness: Bahrain, Qatar, KSA, UAE, Palestine have made steady and significant strides1.
  2. Regulatory Quality: Qatar, UAE, and Palestine jumped more than 10 percentage points from 2005 to 20152.
  3. Control of corruption: Qatar and UAE scored in the 80th percentile compatible with developed countries.

Again….can we truly measure democracy?

Democracy is not a science but it is not an opinion either. According to the DI, there are around 76 full or flawed democracies in the world ranging from Finland to Jamaica to Botswana. All these countries do not have the same forms of democracies, social values, or government structures yet do share common aspects of civil liberties and rule of law. The Arab world is not flawed in all these aspects. Several Arab countries have comparable scores to democracies. Thus, democratic reforms and changes are possible when the real challenging aspects of democracy are addressed, challenged and changed.


1Bahrain moved from 65 to 73
Qatar moved from 66 to 79
KSA 40 to 61
UAE 74 to 92
Palestine 13 to 36

2Qatar from 60 to 73
UAE 71 to 83
Palestine 16 to 56


Freedom House. 2017. Freedom in the World Report.

The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2016. Democracy Index 2016: Revenge of the Deplorables.

The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2007. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy.