But, for those who think that TED only offers the positive, Dr Kaled Alamarie, an environmental protection scientist from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, delivered a dose of realism. “Water is becoming so scarce in certain areas that gun battles erupt,” said Alamarie, who emigrated from Yemen some three decades ago, and speaks now with a thick Brooklyn accent. Deaths from battles over land and water rights, he said, “results in the deaths of some 4,000 people each year, probably more than the violence in the south, the armed rebellion in the north, and Yemeni al-Qaeda terrorism combined.”
Technology, such as drip irrigation, would help, as would desalination plants along the coast, he said, but the costs to pipe that water to Sanaa, 2,250m (7,000ft) above sea level, are prohibitive. “There are,” he said, “no quick fixes and no one size fits all solution.”
The talks continued on similar themes, including hi-tech medical sensors that could, it was claimed, help extend the lives of the 97% of the Yemeni population who never make it past the age of 65.
TEDx events like the one in Sanaa are affiliated with TED, but locally organized. They are an offshoot of the two, highly-successful annual conferences organized by TED itself. Since launching the idea of TEDx in 2009, there have been more than 4,000 events in more than 130 countries.
But, despite their success, TED – and what it stands for – is not without criticism. Some argue that the organization promotes saccharine visions, and ideas devoid of meaningful content or reality. Packaged into a maximum of 18-minutes, the talks allow for precious little analysis, let alone nuance, that characterizes real problems or solutions. At times TEDx Sanaa fell into the more easily parodied moments of TED world, such as the incessant clapping after each speaker (a TED attribute parodied by the satricial website the Onion, in a series of videos).
And, within Yemen itself, there were some doubts about the event. One activist, who did not attend, criticized the exclusiveness of the event, citing the application process, which required a Western-style resume, something many Yemenis were not used to.
As a result, most of the attendees were from the young, educated, urban elite, with a slight bias towards males.
Some also criticized the organizers for not live-streaming the event at Sanaa’s coffee houses, one of the few places in the city with reliable high-speed internet.
In the end, only a little over 300 people viewed the event’s webcast.
But, for many, the success of TEDxSanaa was simply that it took place: a decidedly progressive event at a time of enormous political change. The country is still struggling in the aftermath of last year’s anti-government demonstrations that pushed the country to the of civil war before a political deal led to 33 year President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down from power. The transitional government is now supposed to be paving the way for open elections next year, but political negotiations have been stalled for months.
And there are other problems. Foreign kidnappings have become so common that it is now something of a national joke (the far majority of the kidnapped are returned unharmed) and there is also growing criticism over US drone strikes, which are openly embraced by the current government. Yemen’s interim President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, in his first visit to Washington in September, marveled at drone technology, claiming that it was “more advanced than the human brain”. And just two days before the TEDx event, a reported US drone strike targeted suspected Al Qaeda militants in central Yemen, one of a series of attacks that has only escalated in recent months.