America came to the Arab world to save souls. American missionaries in the nineteenth century engaged several literary luminaries, largely from Lebanon, to put forward what they considered proper Arabic versions of the Old and New Testaments. In the minds of those missionaries, the word of God was to be the gate through which America was to enter the Holy Land and beyond. And indeed, in the mid nineteenth century, the vast majority of American resources in the region were in the Levant, and primarily at the command of missionaries, who few decades later founded academic institutions that evolved to become the American universities in Beirut and Cairo.

America’s next wave of presence in the region was also led by scholarly types, this time however, hailing from the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). From Bill Eddy (the first American Arabist spy in the region, who had worked mostly in the Maghreb) to the cousins Archie and Kim Roosevelt (probably the most famous CIA officers to have worked in the region), East Coast elites (nurtured in highly exclusive schools like Groton, and universities like Harvard and Yale) came to the Middle East thinking American strategic interests dovetail with the aspirations of the peoples of the region for development and for emerging from the cloak of colonialism.

This romanticism soon evaporated when American interests clashed with these aspirations. Iran was the first theatre in the early 1950s. America’s involvement, along with Britain, in deposing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadaq and orchestrating the return of the Shah who had fled the country, revealed the primacy of ruthless pragmatism in geopolitics. Realpolitik replaced romanticism.

By the mid 1960s, gone was the Arabs’ view of America as different from the other Western powers that had controlled the Middle East from the beginning of the nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. The Arab-Israeli conflict and America’s strategic alliance with Israel cemented that new conception of America in the Arabs’ collective psyche.

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and President Sadat of Egypt tried to effect a transformation of the American-Arab relationship. Since the famous meeting on the waters of the Suez Canal in 1945, between President F.D. Roosevelt and King Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, America has placed Saudi Arabia at the core of its engagement with the Arab world. And Faisal, who often took assertive positions vis a vis American decisions concerning the Middle East, was a weighty counterpart that America fully understood his gravitas and influence throughout the Islamic world. With regard to Egypt, Anwar Sadat was convinced, since the early 1970s, that America was almost a sole superpower, and so tried and succeeded in the mid 1970s, to alter Egypt’s strategic positioning from an alliance with the Soviet Union towards increasing closeness to the US. Together, Faisal and Sadat, entertained the idea that, with Saudi oil and the country’s commanding position in international oil markets, and with Egypt (and its political, demographic, and at the time cultural, gravitas) they can gradually effect a change in America’s positioning in the Middle East – not to abandon the strategic partnership with Israel, but to situate it along with almost equally important links to the Arab world.

They failed. But a lot of water has run under the bridge since the mid 1970s. And almost a half century on, America, now at the cusp of a new strategic confrontation with China, sees the Arab world differently, and the Arab world sees her differently.

Whereas America, in the 150-years of its experience in the Arab world, was always interested in the region, today it prefers detachment. Three factors lie at the heart of this new American assessment and sentiment concerning the region.

First, oil’s importance is receding. Oil will continue to be the primary source of energy in the world for the foreseeable future. But its share in the global energy mix, particularly that of the West, will almost certainly decrease substantially in the coming decades. In its own right, America is now a major energy producer and exporter. And so the importance of Arab oil, the key determinant of American policy in the Middle East in the past eight decades, is also declining.

Second, from many American perspectives, the Arab world has proven disappointing. The Arab world has not, as many American strategists had envisioned, managed to move on a trajectory towards political liberalism and democracy and true market economy. Nor have Arab liberals or Islamists, both at different times, forces America had bet on, emerged as savvy politicians, let alone the strategic choices of the people of the region. In the minds of many American thinkers, the Arab world remains mired in socio-political ills, and economic weaknesses and dependencies, that American politicians and intelligence professionals had observed eight decades ago.

Third, the Arab world is far from East Asia and the Pacific, the main theatre of America’s strategic confrontation with China. Actually, most of the Arab world – with few exceptions, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf – has limited direct interest, or any sway at all, in that strategic confrontation.

These factors have, for several years now, made many decision-circles in America interested in a gradual detachment from the Middle East, especially after two decades of highly costly wars and state building projects that have, arguably, proven futile.

This last factor is also one of the reasons why there is a corresponding desire amongst many in the Arab world for detachment from America. America’s legacy in Iraq has left a very bitter taste in many Arab tongues. Despite their acute problems with the regime of Saddam Hussein, many Arabs saw the destruction of large parts of Iraq as an assault on one of the countries whose history and culture have shaped the collective Arab psyche. In addition, America’s way of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past two decades have also planted the idea in many Arab minds, that America has become a country that neither acts with cold strategic assessment, nor follows through with steely determination on objectives it had previously put front and centre. Amidst this increasing conviction, many Arabs, including in countries that had relied for decades on American defence, are now seeking strategic autonomy.

In addition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring has particularly harmed America’s positioning in the thinking of the most influential groups in the Arab political economy. Within these groups, some believe that the Arab Spring was an American plan to reshape the Middle East, while others believe that it was a surprise in which America ditched its old allies. Either case, in the thinking of these groups, America has proven itself not reliable at moments of peril.

There is a third factor. As this series has argued, a big part of America’s global positioning in the past eight decades stems from its unrivalled economic, financial, educational, scientific, technological, and cultural power in the world. The Arabs – like many other peoples - were, for decades, lured by America. Today, however, the world is becoming increasingly and rapidly different from how it was in the past eight decades. Multi-polarity is a reality, not just politically and economically, but crucially culturally. The East – largely in Asia, but also in different parts of the Arab world – has been gaining a new-found confidence, that it now no longer looks to America with starry eyes. And so, as much as America, mentally and emotionally, wants to turn its eyes away from the Arab world, the Arab world is already looking in different directions, seeking new partnerships and cooperations. The Arabs do not want, and cannot politically or economically afford, a serious detachment from America. But for many Arabs, a new strategic balance of their global relationships is needed, and that is why their eyes are no longer fixed on the West and America in particular but are increasingly glancing towards the East.