(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) PRESIDENT BARACK Obama created a stir last week - in Washington, Cairo and across the Middle East - when he described Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government as neither an ally nor an enemy.
The State Department later walked the comment back a bit, but the White House had delivered its message: We have no responsibility to fight this government or support it, and Egypt's new leaders need our money more than we need their good will.
By signaling that Washington will try to get what it wants not by spending more money but by threatening to withhold it, the White House has again made clear that it will not lunge into the latest Middle East turmoil but will continue to keep its distance. This trend towards less direct engagement is playing out across the region.
In the Middle East, stability has for centuries been imposed, for better and for worse, by outsiders - Europeans, Ottomans, Russians and Americans. But today, there are no foreigners willing and able to accept the costs and risks that come with this role. Americans are worried about jobs and debt " and US foreign policy has shifted focus toward Asia. Europeans are preoccupied with their continent's crisis of confidence. Russia lacks Soviet-scale international muscle, and the Chinese are worried about China " its slowing economy and the dangers of domestic reform. The latest wave of anti-American outrage across the Muslim world has only deepened this reluctance of outsiders to become more involved. Before he was ousted, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak warned Washington many times over many years that the alternative to his authoritarian rule was a flow of radicals over the wall. Now there is a flood of wire service photographs of exactly that nightmare, and the murder of US diplomats in Libya has given them a much more sinister frame. The fury has spread to Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq and beyond.
The slaughter in Syria adds to the anxiety. No one outside Tehran and Moscow wants to bolster Bashar Al Assad, but the images of infuriated young men in Egypt, Libya and Yemen have given outsiders greater pause about Syria's fragmented, radicalised and increasingly well-armed opposition. That conflict will drag on without intervention by outsiders for some time to come.
In short, foreign governments are now less willing than ever to bet on either the devil they know or the one they don't. The result is that local powers will be left to sort things out. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia - three countries with very different political systems, social structures, worldviews and visions for the region - will compete for influence.
For many in the Arab world, Turkey offers proof that a Muslim democracy can build a modern, dynamic economy with a relatively open society. Iran is the world's only theocracy, an international nuclear outlaw and an alleged state sponsor of militancy. Saudi Arabia remains far more socially conservative than either of its influential neighbours. The frictions produced by various forms of conflict among these three will shape the region for many years to come.
Turkey, which imports a large percentage of its energy from Iran, will try to keep troubled relations with the Islamic Republic on track, but Iran's fear that Turkey is undermining Assad's government in Syria, Iran's primary regional ally, and Ankara's suspicion that Tehran is supporting Kurdish militancy inside Turkey will keep things at a simmer. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have interests in common, particularly in limiting Iran's regional influence, but the two governments are marketing markedly different interpretations of modernity and religion.
Other states will play a significant role. Egypt's new government will continue to try to strike a delicate balance between appeasing street-level anger toward America and protecting a relationship with Washington that brings in about 1.3 billion a year in military aid. But President Mohammed Mursi has not proven he's up to the task, adding uncertainty for the United States, Israel and the rest of the region. Qatar's government will continue to spend money to extend its influence, particularly in Syria. Finally, though Israel is unlikely to launch strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities this year, the tensions generated by escalating rhetoric on both sides will keep governments and markets on edge.
Welcome to the new Middle East, where old assumptions must be questioned and new crises loom. Over the longer term, regional stability may well benefit as local governments, aware there are fewer constraints on their belligerence, will be forced to accept greater responsibility for provocative actions. But the road from here to there will lead through undiscovered country.