ABU DHABI - The recurrent theme at the Sir Bani Yas Forum, hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Chatham House here last weekend, was 'Where is the United States?'
As the conference opened, Israel had just begun launching strikes in Gaza in response to the missile attacks from Hamas; Syria's civil war raged with no end in sight; answers to the growing challenge of Iran remained elusive; and the course of Egypt's political evolution had many concerned.
No one was suggesting the United States could or ought to have all the answers, but among this gathering of Arab, North African, South Asian and European diplomats and international civil servants, the overwhelming consensus was that the superpower is AWOL.
The only question was whether the absence is temporary or permanent.
It was impressive to see how much desire there is for a more active U.S. role in the Middle East.
There was little talk here of America's decline as the world's preeminent power. No one is preparing for a Chinese, Indian or Turkish ascendancy.
Not even the Europeans claim that the European Union has the will or capacity to take on a bigger role in the region.
The United States remains by far the most important player.
What has people concerned and despairing is not American decline but America's declining interest - the sense that the Obama administration, and the American people, have about washed their hands of the Middle East.
President Barack Obama was setting off on the first trip after his reelection, and it was to Southeast Asia, a fitting symbol of his proclaimed "pivot."
No one begrudges the United States paying more attention to Asia, but in the Middle East the pivot is seen as an attempt to turn away from this region's difficult problems.
People here believe Obama got burned on the Middle East peace process three years ago and is reluctant to engage again.
They see how reticent the United States is to do anything in Syria. Veteran America-watchers complain that neither the White House nor the State Department has a Middle East hand with real clout focusing full-time on the region.
And it's hard to deny: Many in the United States, not just inside the Obama administration, seem to think American policy needs to be "rebalanced."
The strategic importance of the Middle East is declining, they argue, as the United States grows independent of the region's oil supply. Obama does little to push back against a growing public perception that there is nothing but trouble for the United States brewing in the Middle East.