Qatar's emir, though, retains most of the power and Sheik Hamad said he did not believe its people were ready for a constitutional monarchy. But Sheik Hamad said Qatar's reforms were in the early stages and would continue.
"Our people are frustrated by the lack of democracy," he said. "If we don't open the door [to peaceful reform], someone will break down the door."
While the Qatari official portrayed his nation's reforms as domestically driven, many in the audience -- including a Saudi woman who said she was afraid her conservative kingdom was being asked to democratize and modernize at dangerous "hyperspeed" -- expressed suspicion change was being enforced by the US.
America's credentials as a reformer also were questioned. The chaos and violence of post-Saddam Iraq was cited, as were accusations the US was sidelining Yasser Arafat, the elected leader of the Palestinian people.
"What has democracy done for the people who are downtrodden? Those are serious questions asked by the people," summed up Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a panelist.
Moussa accused the US of planning the region's future without consulting its people or its leaders, and without giving Arabs credit for their own attempts to change.
Democracy "is a process and the process has started. There are elections all over the place," Moussa said. "We believe we have to link up with the 21st century, but it can never be imposed."
At a news conference, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab said that while politics would take most of the headlines at the conference, improving business and social conditions across the region were also important.