‘There has been no accountability, no transparency, no rule of law. The only thing some Arab rulers have done well is accumulate wealth for themselves. They have 1,001 excuses to delay democracy, but the reality is they have no intention of sharing power. The people are ready, the rulers are not.’

Those impassioned words came from the renowned Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. They were spoken on the evening of 13 October – not in London nor Washington, but, remarkably, during a public gathering in the auditorium of the Qatar Foundation HQ.

Ibrahim was in Qatar as one of the guest speakers at the inaugural session of the monthly Doha Debates. Modelled on the Oxford Union and chaired by the BBC HARDtalk presenter Tim Sebastian, the first forum had two teams of Arab intellectuals battling the controversial motion: ‘This house believes that Arab governments are not interested in genuine reform.’

At the end of the hour-long discussion, during which normally taboo words such as corruption, nepotism and repression were liberally sprinkled, the debate was opened to the floor and the audience of more than 150 Qataris and expatriates invited to vote on the resolution. After some cajoling, as well as encouragement, from the moderator, the stunned audience finally voted and the motion was carried.

As Sebastian noted in his summing up, the fact that the debate took place at all shows there are some exceptions to the rule. No one present was in any doubt either that the event had full official support, given that the emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, chairs the Qatar Foundation.

However, the event also demonstrated that even where the exceptions exist, there is still some way to go. Notably, among the four guest speakers, there was not one Qatari. Moreover, virtually all the questions from the floor came from less inhibited students, rather than the older generation, many of whom appeared dazed at being given the unique opportunity to air their political thoughts in public.

This is not to devalue the value or importance of the event. ‘The primary aim of the debates is to enhance students’ education in democracy and freedom of speech,’ the organisers said beforehand. And in that respect, it was certainly a success. At the same time, the forum clearly demonstrated the commitment to greater debate and popular participation at the very top.

Since coming to power in 1995, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has pushed a reformist, but gradual, political agenda. Just a year into his tenure, the Al-Jazeera satellite channel was launched and media censorship abolished. In 1999, the first democratic exercise in the state’s history took place, with the municipal elections.

Last year, a referendum was held to approve the draft permanent constitution. And on 8 June, Qatar’s first written constitution was promulgated, conferring equal rights and freedom on all its citizens, whatever their gender, race, language or religion, and paving the way for direct elections to a new body, the national consultative council.

The elections will be the culmination of the decade-long reform process. Although no date has yet been set, they are expected to be held in the second half of 2005: the 8 June decree stated that it would be a year before the constitution was published in the official gazette, to allow for the necessary legal procedures to take place and the constitutional institutions to be set up.

When they do, voters will elect through secret ballot 30 members to the council, with the remaining 15 appointed by the emir himself. The council itself will have legislative powers, while powers of the executive and judiciary will be defined for the first time.