DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — While U.S. warships sailing these waters cloak their movements in secrecy, their high-tech sensors and shipboard computers on the alert, an armada of old-fashioned wooden dhows crosses the Strait of Hormuz daily, plying a trade route used for centuries by the merchants of Dubai and Iran.
Once, these sleek, crescent-shaped vessels carried spices and silks, but now their cargoes are more likely to be color television sets, radios and disposable diapers.
It is still a matter of speculation, but shipping sources here believe that, on their way back from Iran, some of these boats--or others like them--may have planted the mines that damaged the supertanker Texaco Caribbean on Aug. 10 and sank a supply ship off the eastern port of Fujaira on Aug. 15.
Scare Subsides Somewhat
The mine scare has subsided somewhat now that the coastal waters have been swept and declared free of the menacing devices. But this is of little comfort to the sheiks who rule Dubai and the six other tiny city-states--Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajmaan, Umm al Qaiwain, Ras al Khaima and Fujaira--that make up the loose federation known as the United Arab Emirates.
"They were very worried about Iran before the mines. They are a lot more worried now," a Western diplomat said.
The fears felt here, at the southern tip of the Persian Gulf barely 40 miles across the water from Iran, are typical in many ways of those gripping the other Arab states further up the waterway--Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, for instance.
Deep Sense of Unease
Virtually undefended and indefensible, the tiny Emirates have watched the gulf war between Iran and Iraq rage about them for almost seven years with a deep sense of unease but also with a certain confidence that they could stay out of it.
That confidence is being undermined now as tensions escalate and the stakes increase following the arrival of U.S., British and French warships in the region.
The appearance of mines not only within the Persian Gulf but in the Gulf of Oman, the unpredictability of Iran's revolutionary leadership and the conviction, shared by most of these states, that the Reagan Administration is only dimly aware of the risks it is courting have given rise to new fears that the war is spreading in an uncontrollable way.
The possibility that Iran may seek to widen the war, through terrorism, subversion or, less likely but not inconceivably, through direct military confrontation, is especially disturbing to these countries because there is little they can do about it.
Moreover, the recent riots by Iranian pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which resulted in more than 400 deaths, have reopened old but still deep divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, reminding the Emirates that this is as much a religious war as it is a political, economic and social conflict.
Shia Islam is the religion of Persian-speaking Iran, while the Arab states of the gulf are ruled by Sunnis.
The split between these two branches of Islam dates to a disagreement in AD 632 over who should have succeeded the Prophet Mohammed as leader of the Islamic faith.
The Shias recognize Ali, the prophet's son-in-law, who was bypassed in the succession and later assassinated. Ali's son Hussein subsequently pressed the family claim but was defeated and beheaded at a battle in Karbala, Iraq.
This may seem like ancient history, but to dismiss it as such, analysts warn, is to ignore an essential component of the current conflict.
"One of the problems you Americans have in understanding this part of the world is that you've never been able to appreciate the power that the past holds over the present," said one Western analyst, who has spent years studying the region.
"When I talk to Americans about the history behind this conflict, their eyes tend to glaze over, as if to say 'Get to the point.' But this is the point, because the Iranians, in a real sense, are fighting the battle of Karbala all over again." Karbala, he noted, is the code name that Tehran uses for its offensives against Iraq.
There are, in effect, two wars now being fought in the gulf--the one that began on Sept. 22, 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, and the one that began more than a millennium ago. And it is this second, far more passionate conflict that is especially worrisome to the Sunni nations of the Persian Gulf, most of whom have sizable Shia communities.
In Kuwait, Shias make up about a third of the population. In Bahrain, they constitute 70%. In the Emirates, Shias number only about 65,000 in a population of about 1.6 million. But this figure takes on more importance in view of the fact that only 20% of the population holds citizenship, the rest being expatriate workers.
In Saudi Arabia, the Shia community is also small, but it is concentrated in the eastern provinces, where the kingdom's oil fields are located.