The grand entrance of the embassy's residence has been transformed: Empty coffee cups are scattered throughout the room, a huge table is covered with papers and phones, a map of the Middle East sits on an easel. The blue light of the television bounces off the tile floor, the elaborate woodwork, the fountain in the middle of the room.

Sheik Saud Nasir Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, walks past the chaos of the makeshift war room into the formal living room. In there, everything is serene. The pillows on the long white couches are lined up perfectly. The carpet is newly vacuumed, the ashtrays empty. The only hint of the crisis is the phones -- the sound turned off but the red lights blinking incessantly, even at this late hour.

For the past week, since Iraqi tanks rolled into his country, his only source of information has been the telephone. He is waiting for the call that will bring good news. "I'm optimistic because I have to be optimistic," he says.

The first inkling that there could be a serious problem came three weeks ago, when Sabah, his wife and three of his five children were poised to leave New York for a month-long visit to Kuwait. After reading an Iraqi memo charging Kuwait with stealing Iraqi land, he changed his mind about the vacation. His wife and a daughter went on to Kuwait; the ambassador and two of his sons returned to Washington.

His concern is especially close to home. Sabah is a member of Kuwait's ruling family, which has governed the country since 1756. The emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, is his cousin, as is the crown prince; the emir's son is married to his other daughter, who gave birth to his fifth grandchild in Kuwait three days before the invasion. There are 1,000 family members in the country serving in the government and military, Sabah says, and "a number" of them were among the casualties of the invasion.

Sabah sinks into a chair next to the phones. He resists the urge to answer but cannot keep his eyes off the blinking lines.

A phone call told him that the emir had safely fled the country. And that his wife and children are out of danger. And that Saddam Hussein's tanks and army have ravaged his once peaceful country, destroying buildings, looting homes and "ransacking the whole place."

When the conflict in the Middle East was far from the border of his tiny Persian Gulf country, he devoted 80 percent of his time to the Arab cause, the Palestinian problem and the Iraq-Iran war, he says. In the span of nine days, Kuwait's ambassador has been tossed from the role of diplomat to that of stunned victim.

The invasion of Iraqi troops clearly shocked the 45-year-old diplomat. "It was a stab in the back. There's no other way to describe it," he says. "It wasn't in our mind or in our vision of a thousand years that something like this would happen.

"I sit now and wonder whether I've wasted my time or not," he says quietly. "Whether I've neglected my country all these years by concentrating on a global problem. And this is what we get for it."

It is a rare moment of doubt. Sabah's approach to the events in his life has always been practical. His reaction to two hours of sleep per night is indicative.

"It's the first time I found out I could go for a long time without sleep," he says. "So all that sleep I had before proved to be excessive."

There is little about Sabah that one could call excessive. There are no flowing robes at the Kuwaiti Embassy, no obvious displays of wealth. The ambassador is dressed elegantly but quietly in a navy chalk-stripe suit. The shirt is crisp, the tie still tight, the shoes perfectly polished.

He reaches, after a half-hour of conversation, for an unopened pack of cigarettes. It is a habit he has unsuccessfully attempted to give up for years. He carefully removes the wrapping, neatly tears the foil from the edge and slowly strikes the pack against his hand. There is nothing rushed. He goes on to smoke four cigarettes in 15 minutes.

"This job is not for people who are scared," he says. "I'm mad, but I'm also patient. They're not going to stay there, I tell you. They're going to have to get out. He's going to be the loser."

He calls the Iraqis burglars. They go in, he says, they burgle the place, take all the wealth of the country and then they leave. "Burglars don't usually stay in someone's home. They come in, they loot the place and they leave.

"We have been brought up with this peaceful attitude toward people," he says. "Hospitable. We open our hearts for militants. This is the way {his family} brought us up. We didn't learn anything else. We didn't learn to be hostile to anybody."

Kuwait, like the rest of the Persian Gulf area, was home to poor desert tribes for most of its history. Its vast oil and natural gas reserves were not discovered until 1946, when the country, about the size of New Jersey, became one of the richest nations in the world. Unlike the ruling families in neighboring countries, the Sabah family has kept a low profile and has poured money into social programs. "We are the ruling family, not the royal family," says Sabah. "We've always desired ourselves to be part and parcel of the people rather than a separate, royal family."

Sabah was part of the first generation to be educated abroad. At age 11, he was sent to an English-speaking school in Cairo but left a year later. "It was too foreign for me. I couldn't adapt to the way of life there." He was then sent to Beirut, and finally to England for prep school -- first Devon, then Kingarth.

"When I first went there, I was forced to go. I was practically dragged, shouting and kicking, but I had to go.

"I didn't, in the beginning, like schooling too much," he says. In England, he applied to and qualified for colleges for the air force and the navy, but because there was no air force or navy in Kuwait at that time, the idea was discouraged by his family. "So my country said, 'If you want to go military, go into the army.' I didn't like the army. I don't have that hostility, maybe. But I liked flying. I like the sea. The army is nothing adventurous for me.

"Then I decided I just wanted to do law."

His studies were interrupted by his 1962 marriage to a second cousin, Awatif, who was also living in England. The couple went home to Kuwait for their marriage. After the birth of their first son, they returned to England for Sabah to get a law degree. He then joined the legal department of the ministry of foreign affairs in Kuwait where he practiced international law. He never considered another course for his life.

"It was my duty toward my country -- whether I'm from the ruling family or not."

He returned to London in 1975 as ambassador to the Court of St. James's, where he served for five years, and then came to the United States as ambassador in 1981, where he is best known for his work during the Iraq-Iran war.

"He's a very able ambassador. Articulate, serious, highly respected," says Egyptian Ambassador El Sayed Abdel Raouf El Reedy. "And pragmatic. But this took a lot of people by surprise."

With his country at peace, Sabah served on the sidelines of the Middle East wars. He only entered the public spotlight once, during the United States' 1987 reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers that were being attacked in the Persian Gulf by Iran because of support Kuwait had given Iraq.

Sabah calls the former relationship with Iraq "brotherly." But because Kuwait supported Iraq during the eight years of the war, the invasion is a personal betrayal to the Kuwaitis.

"We rest our case with world public opinion. If their claim is territorial and they are basing their facts on falsehoods ... " -- he stops for a moment -- "... taking into consideration what we have given them all during the war, if they have their problems, their grievances, let them come to discuss them -- discuss them from the point of respect and equality. Not from domination."

His confidence comes from the fact that no Kuwaiti citizen was willing to head a puppet government for the Iraqis. Any internal political problems, he claims, have not translated into support for outside intervention. And he is lavish in his praise for the American and world response to his country's plight.

"This little country in the world has been able to bring about a consensus with certain exceptions -- minor, very low kind of people. Everybody's pushing hard. Everybody there."

He refuses to speculate on how long it will be before his country is back in the hands of the ruling family. He refuses to consider -- even entertain the thought -- that he will never see his country again.

Patience, he says. "You've got to be patient in this life. You can't expect things of this magnitude to resolve themselves overnight."

He is quiet for a moment. Saddam Hussein, he says calmly, is the most brutal man the Middle East has ever known.

"If the world is going to sit and watch what he's doing, without doing anything, this man is going to go on and on and on," he warns. "There's no end to it. So it's a collective responsibility and liability upon the world to put an end to this man's practices."

He lights another cigarette.

"If Kuwait goes, the whole area goes. If they continue occupying Kuwait, notwithstanding all the resolutions and positions taken by the world community, then this world is not worth living in. Believe you me."