"For all the logical focus on pivots in other directions, however, the fact remains that the United States cannot afford to neglect what's at stake in the Middle East," he said.
He credited Bahrain's leadership for some reforms aimed at easing the tensions, including giving more powers to the elected parliament. But he noted "there is still a long road ahead" in following through with recommendations by an independent fact-finding committee last year that included calls for investigation into allegations of high-level abuses against protesters.
The main Bahrain Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, said Saturday that it was open to the crown prince's offer for dialogue, but it was unclear whether any breakthroughs were possible. Past overtures have failed to gain traction.
Burns also said Middle Eastern oil remains crucial for the world economy despite projections of a sharp rise in U.S. crude output in coming years from techniques such as extracting oil from shale.
Burns, however, pointed out that other nations need to help chart the course in the region following the Arab Spring — suggesting no major unilateral push by Washington over Syria or other simmering disputes such as Iran's nuclear program.
"It is important for Americans, self-absorbed as we sometimes are, to understand that the Middle East is not all about us ... But if it's not about us, the future of the region certainly matters a great deal to us," he told the conference. "It's a region today that is full of both threat and promise."
Earlier, Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the Saudi deputy foreign minister, told the conference that "tampering with the stability and security of any Gulf Arab state is considered as tampering with the security and stability of all other Gulf Arab states."
He described the "security and destiny" of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council as "one and may not be divided." The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council plan to meet later this month in Bahrain with issues such as closer intelligence and security coordination on the agenda.