ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- The political elite among the desert-bred population here tuned in this summer to Lt. Col. Oliver North testifying before Congress.

In the age of satellite television, one enterprising sheik has put up a parabolic dish to intercept the coded signal that beams U.S. Armed Forces radio and television to American service personnel in the Indian Ocean.

The sheik also obtained a device to decode the satellite signal and has distributed the bountiful electronic reward to his villa and -- via cable -- to the villas of dozens of his peers.

"Of course, everyone here now watches American television all day long," lamented a European diplomat.

But during these weeks of major developments in the Persian Gulf war, American television has given these sheikdoms an important window on the distant American political system whose current leadership has tried, awkwardly some here say, to come to the rescue this summer.

The local appetite for intelligence about what, if anything, America intends to do to Iran is insatiable because down here in the southern gulf, Iran is the largest force in the region, a superpower neighbor to these coastal city states. The Arabs and Persians -- trapped on the gulf shores by the mountain and desert barriers behind them -- naturally have developed their trade and cultural ties across the water.

The Arabs here are anxious to contain the seven-year-old war between their largest neighbor, Iran, and their distant Arab brothers in Iraq. And the buildup of American, British and now French naval forces has deeply disturbed them.

Thus when they tuned in to the Iran-contra hearings in Washington, the Arab leaders here were frustrated, unable to interpret America's reaction to the competing issues of U.S-Iranian, U.S.-Arab and U.S.-Israeli relations displayed before them. The outpouring of support for North's performance before his inquisitors further muddled the picture of America's attitude toward Iran and the Arab world.

So, when an American naval armada arrived to escort the first Kuwaiti tankers up the Persian Gulf under the American flag, the event initially fostered a notion of confidence that a strong and powerful force had come to end the war.

But doubt and confusion are still the dominant sentiments as Arab leaders ask themselves what America's longterm interests are for relations on both sides of the gulf.

These doubts were only fortified by the image that appeared on their satellite downlinks Friday, that of the humbled American warships falling in behind their mine-damaged supertanker, the Bridgeton. The protectors suddenly needed protection, while Iran's leaders stepped up talk of a wider war.

EVERY CRISIS creates its own jargon, and in the Persian Gulf, it has become necessary for the great maritime powers to carefully define what their ships are doing there.

The United States, which has the highest profile, is "escorting" American flag vessels through the treacherous channels where waterborne Iranian forces lurk and where a mine blast can ruin everyone's day, as it did last week.

The British Navy, which has now deployed 20 percent of its fleet in the area, is trying to appear invisible so as not to provoke Iran or endanger the hundreds of British citizens who work on oil rigs in the gulf.

The British government has said it does not "escort" its commercial flag vessels through the gulf, but merely maintains a naval presence in the region should there be trouble.

But as one British diplomat explained this week, the British Navy does in fact "shadow" British oil tankers. Indeed, through May of this year, British warships have "shadowed" 106 British flag merchantmen through the gulf. It has gotten to the point where British ships form up in a convoy and "wait for their shadow" to take them into the gulf, the diplomat said.

The French, who have given conflicting accounts of what they are doing in the gulf, now acknowledge unofficially that they "accompany" their merchant ships. One French diplomat in the region said he asked a French warship commander whether there was a difference between "escort" and "accompany" in the nautical sense.

The warship commander replied that the difference is that in an escort, the navy leads the way and picks the route. An accompaniment is like a "shadow" -- the warship stays close by while the merchant ship picks the route.

THE QUESTIONS being raised about American intentions in the gulf are no less difficult than the question of Iranian intentions.

Western sources here say that a new dialogue has been opened between the United States and Iran through "third parties" in these tiny emirates, but the substance of the discussions is very closely held.

After the misrepresentations that characterized secret talks of American, Israeli and Iranian officials during the arms-hostages negotiations, required reading for any new negotiator can be found in an old State Department cable dredged up by Newsweek this week.

In it, Bruce Laingen, a former hostage and American Embassy official in Iran, gave these pointers on dealing across the table with Iran:

"First, one should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone that it will be conceded to have merits.

"Second, one should not expect an Iranian readily to perceive the advantages of a longterm relationship based on trust.

"Third, interlocking relationships of all aspects of an issue must be painstakingly, forcefully and repeatedly developed.

"Fourth, one should insist on performance as the sine qua non at each stage of negotiations. Statements of intention count for almost nothing.

"Fifth, cultivation of good will for good will's sake is a waste of effort.

"Finally, one should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in negotiations at any given moment and not be cowed by the possibility."

The memo, dated August 1979, was written before Iran's seizure of the U.S. Embassy and the taking of hostages in Tehran. It is unlikely that the Iranian negotiating psychology has changed for the better when it comes to the West.