Salisbury described the local conflict that has been internationalised and turned into a complex regional security and humanitarian challenge with global implications. He explained the history of the conflict, the policy considerations, and the possible outcomes for the country.

“The Houthis have resorted to increasingly brutal methods of putting down the local population”, he said. However, in the last year the group has been given legitimacy through the support of various other factions, including the conservative Sunni faction and Iran. With the Houthis backed by Iran, and the Hadi government backed by the Saudis, “there are people in Tehran and Riyadh who see it as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war”, in which both countries have their own interests to protect in the region.

The only way Western powers like the US and the United Kingdom will get involved, Salisbury argued, is if the media report on the growing humanitarian crisis. The major challenge is not weapons, but resources. In that case, they could put pressure on Saudi Arabia to pull back, however, Salisbury predicted, no one is willing to commit the political capital necessary to do this. Salisbury spoke about the domestic pressures in Saudi Arabia, where King Salman has adopted a more aggressive foreign policy than his predecessor, “this has been a thumb in the eye of the Iranians” yet the Iranian leadership sees it as a way of “drawing the Saudis in, and creating … long-term chaos.”

The best case scenario, according to Salisbury, would be constructive peace talks at the upcoming Geneva consultations. “Every single party involved is pointing to the National Dialogue outcomes and the Draft Constitution”. This, he believed, could be a solution if certain negotiations can be made.

If an immediate ceasefire can be agreed, there would be a gradual de-escalation of tension, and the humanitarian relief effort could begin. If not, there could be a continuation of the status quo, with the Houthis continuing to advance, both gaining and losing territory. His third scenario is that military leadership will take over the country, leading to an even greater loss of civilian lives. Complete fragmentation of Yemen would ensue and the country would be led into a situation like that of Syria.

Salisbury concluded that, unfortunately, it is more likely that a combination of the last two scenarios will play out, putting the Yemeni people in greater danger and destabilising the region.

The discussion was moderated by Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute.

Interview with Peter Salisbury and Anne Applebaum

About the Speaker

Peter Salisbury is a freelance journalist whose writing regularly appears in Foreign Policy as well as The Economist, The Financial Times and the Washington Post, among others. In 2013 he acted as a project consultant to Chatham House’s Yemen Forum and co-authored two political economy analysis reports for the World Bank. He mostly focuses on Yemen, but has also spent time working in Lebanon, Morocco and Oman. Peter was formerly Energy Editor of Middle East Economic Digest, and has a Msc in International Politics from SOAS.


  • Is Yemen Becoming the Next Syria? By Peter Salisbury, March 2015, Democracy Lab (View)

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.​​