"There isn't such a word as 'reflagged,' " Shaikh Saud Nasir Al-Sabah, Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, says quietly, the subject, of course, being the oil tankers that have made the word a front-page adjective.

It's a minor correction -- he offers it with a little smile that says he knows this is semantics. "Look it up in the dictionary," he says. "We've reregistered these ships. It's like your car. If you have Maryland registration and you move to Virginia and get Virginia license plates, do you say your car is replated?"

For Kuwait, ally to Iraq, the hope is that U.S. flags mean safe passage through the Persian Gulf. Over the past year, Kuwaiti tankers have been attacked by Iran because of the support Kuwait has given Iraq in the war between the two nations.

"The advantage for you," says the ambassador, "is long-term strategic interest. You're guaranteeing that oil reaches your allies . . . Maybe from a commercial side, it's to our advantage. Our main concern is to get our oil to our partners."

Eleven Kuwaiti tankers are now registered as U.S. ships and under escort by the U.S. Navy. And Al-Sabah's mission, in part, is to explain the situation, put it in perspective, and answer -- quell, really -- suspicions that Kuwait has maneuvered the United States into the dangerous role of gulf guardian angel for Kuwait. Last weekend, a U.S. Navy fighter plane fired at a suspected Iranian warplane over the reflagged ships.

"The word I heard used is 'manipulated,' " Al-Sabah says. "This started as a commercial matter. The Kuwait Oil Tanker Co. sought the registration of our ships with different countries -- among them, the U.S. . . . It's becoming a military or political matter. That wasn't our intention in the beginning."

Al-Sabah says the U.S. decision to aid Kuwait "is a positive step in getting a closer relationship with the U.S. and we welcome it, we appreciate it. Our whole economy is based on this {export of oil}. If we can't pass through the gulf, our economy suffers and the economies of countries to which the oil is going suffer. We have to guarantee freedom of passage through the gulf."

There were the usual fees paid to reregister the Kuwaiti tankers, but Al-Sabah says the Kuwaiti government is not paying for the naval escort. And he denies reports that U.S. helicopters helping to sweep the gulf for mines were denied landing rights in Kuwait.

"We have not been asked by the U.S. for landing rights for these purposes," he says. "We have 19 U.S. technicians working with our people and the Saudis on this . . . This effort to get the seas clear of mines is a collective international responsibility."

Al-Sabah judges these actions in the gulf to have made Iran "furious, because we have limited their targets. They had a free hand hitting our ships. Now they see Soviet ships carrying our oil, American ships carrying our oil, British ships carrying our oil. In the past, they have concentrated on two things: hitting our tankers and aiding and abetting terrorism in our country. Now they're limited in hitting our tankers -- hopefully -- and we expect that they will step up aiding terror in our country, so we have to be careful."

An internal problem stems from the split between the Sunni Moslem majority and the Shiite minority -- some influenced by Iranian Shiites.

"We always try to avoid identifying Shiites and Sunnis in our country," Al-Sabah says. "Now, we know there are some Shiites who identify with Khomeini. It's not a crime in our country to associate with a religious leader. But this should not infringe on the security of the country."

It's a difficult issue.

"We don't want to have a split in our society. We want one Kuwaiti society whether you're Shiite or Sunni or Christian. There are many agitators trying to arouse feelings among young people. They are attempting to split this solid unit of Kuwaiti citizens, to bring more fear and terror into the country."

Before an Islamic summit meeting in January in Kuwait, security forces in Kuwait "arrested about 13 young Kuwaitis who were plotting acts of terror," Al-Sabah says. "We discovered bombs and lethal weapons in their homes." Al-Sabah says most of the group were convicted and their sentences range from a few years in prison to death (although, he says, no one has been executed yet).

Of the saboteurs, Al-Sabah says, "I would say they were brainwashed by religious ideology, associating religion with politics." Sixty percent of the 1.7 million people in Kuwait are not Kuwaitis. "We are a minority in our country," he says. "We need this. We've always been open to workers from other countries. But this revolution in Iran has created problems for us. So our immigration laws have been tightened up."

Internally, Al-Sabah says, the country has not adopted extreme security measures. "We move around freely," he says. "There have not been indiscriminate {security} actions. This has been highly exaggerated in the foreign press."

Since the war began, "people have begun to understand this is not religion," he says. "We all sympathize with religious movements, but when it comes to persecution of people, threatening your neighbors, in the name of Islam, we don't believe it's an Islamic movement. It's a political movement, an ideological movement which we try to contain."

In an odd way, he says, the Iran-Iraq war touches him more in the United States than it would if he were home. "Sometimes I find myself worrying more about this war than my people in Kuwait," he says. "I call home and I say, 'What's going on?' They say, 'Nothing's going on.' "

Daily life goes on, Al-Sabah says, "but you can hear the war going on -- the shelling and bombing across the sea."

The fear is psychological: "People don't know what they will face tomorrow," he says.

He's been to Iran. "Nice country, nice people. I don't know what's overcome them."

Al-Sabah is 42, a slender, gracious man with a thoughtful, understated manner. He wears a crisp blue-gray suit, and his gold cuff links are studded with tiny diamonds and sapphires. He smokes cigarettes and apologizes for the habit. "I'm trying to stop," he says with a troubled frown, "but the more I think about it, the more I smoke."

The son of a Kuwaiti real estate businessman and the nephew of the ruling emir of Kuwait, he is one of the members of the ruling Sabah family of Kuwait. (Hence the royal title "Shaikh.") There is no hereditary line of succession -- Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy; the emir names a member of the family as his successor who then becomes the crown prince.

"To be a member of the ruling family is a privilege but it doesn't entail lucrative advantages whereby you can sit home and do nothing," Al-Sabah says. "I assure you I'm not a wealthy man."

Kuwaiti wealth is built on oil -- and management and investment of the profits. "We believe this wealth has to be preserved for future generations," Al-Sabah says. In fact, 10 percent of state revenues each year go toward a multibillion-dollar Fund for Future Generations, no part of which can be touched until 2001.

"It's a small nation with a small population," he says. "When you judge the GNP of a country and divide it by the number of people, you get a high number, that's true. But we have a lot of development projects going on and a huge amount of expenditures devoted to that. The government's responsibility is to its people. There is free education, free hospitalization, free housing. The government tries to do as much as it can to distribute the wealth among the people."

Al-Sabah has lived away from home most of his life. At 11, he was sent to an English-speaking school in Cairo. He was miserable; the language and the English system of discipline were foreign to him. At 12, he transferred to prep school in England -- first Devon, then Kingarth on the Isle of Wight.

After prep school, he married his second cousin, who had also been studying in England. They returned to Kuwait for the wedding and stayed through the birth of their first child, a son. (They now have three sons and two daughters; the youngest, a boy, will be entering kindergarten.) Al-Sabah was 18 when his first was born.

"To marry young in Kuwait is a welcome thing," he says. "I think maybe they don't want us to be straying around the world."

He and his wife Awatif (now 40 years old) returned to school in England, leaving their baby with his parents. "It was very hard," he says. "But my parents were very attached to him, and he was very young. He needed better attention and care than we could give him. We had our minds on our studies. But we went back to Kuwait every year."

After law school and an apprenticeship in London in divorce law for a few months, he returned to Kuwait and a job in the foreign ministry as a lawyer. In the early '70s, he worked at the United Nations, and in 1975 he was posted to London as ambassador to Great Britain (along with Sweden, Norway and Denmark). He became ambassador here in 1981.

And while the United States may be his most demanding post, it's not his only one. He's also the ambassador to Venezuela and Canada, each of which he manages to visit about once a year. "We do have a lack of human resources, and we have to spread ourselves thin," he says.

Temperatures in Kuwait this time of the year run to 120 degrees, but Al-Sabah chafes at the Washington heat like everyone else. "We feel it more in Washington," he says. "Maybe it's the humidity."

He says he has visited "every major city" in the United States, and sometimes has to explain where Kuwait is. "Some of them think it's in the Caribbean or South America," he says. "I notice in schools that they don't teach much geography."

He often talks about non-Kuwaiti matters: "Over 50 percent of the time is devoted to the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than Kuwait." (Kuwaitis feel about Israel "as any Arab country feels about Israel," he says: "We would like to see Palestinians return to their homeland . . . We would like to see Palestinian self-determination.")

As was expected of him, he expects discipline of the approximately 4,000 Kuwaiti students studying in America. About half are on government scholarship.

Several years ago, when he discovered that 80 Kuwaiti students were at the same college in Michigan, he visited the campus and found the students had segregated themselves into something of a comfortable Kuwaiti community. When he found out that the students were not being held to the same standards as Americans, he says, he pulled them out.

"I have seen some of our students graduating who don't know how to speak English," he says, a wave of incredulity washing over his face. "How did they graduate from college? This has been one of my main concerns. We're building up future leadership in our country. We have to be careful about this."

He sympathizes with the students' difficulties adjusting to the language, culture and ways of Americans. "We all had problems living abroad at first," he says. "But you learn to take it. And we feel after six months" -- he shrugs a little -- "they'll be fine."

Al-Sabah says it's nearing time to return to Kuwait -- his younger children know nothing of their homeland -- and that will be no problem: "For a Kuwaiti to leave Kuwait and not come back, he must be crazy. He gets everything in Kuwait free."