GENEVA -- The Iraqi conquest of Kuwait is a human tragedy. Beyond the transgressions of morality and law, the rising oil prices and the destabilizing of the Third World's most important region, a tyrant has destroyed a peaceable and vibrant country. I would like to recall Kuwait before Saddam Hussein turns it into one more cog of his war machine.

To be sure, the Kuwaitis had it good -- too good. The 700,000 or so citizens benefited from an annual income of about $14 billion. That comes to $23,000 each year in free money for every man, woman and child. (By contrast, Americans annual personal income averages $18,700 per person.) Were life fair, Kuwaitis would not have benefited from such vast, unearned wealth, extracted with much pain from industrialized and poor countries alike. And there is no point denying that much of this money went into the usual self-indulgences -- mansions, cars, servants and foreign vacations.

But there is no point railing against Kuwaiti fortune. Beyond luxury, the key question is whether the beneficiaries of this income used it constructively, whether they did more than consume. Here they get high marks. Surprisingly, in a single generation, Kuwait emerged as an intellectual and cultural center of the Middle East. It supported serious research into medical and ecological problems. Its universities attracted some of the brightest minds of the Arabic-speaking world. As Kuwaitis became educated, they came to recognize the value of liberal tolerance. Their newspapers, magazines and books were among the freest and most important in the region. Whether it was accurate news from Lebanon or the Arabic version of Sesame Street, chances were good it came from Kuwait. Beyond the luxury and fun, there was a sense of trying to do good, to give some return on so much of the world's investment. Admittedly, the return was meager, but it would have grown with time.

The government of Sheikh Jabir al-Sabah was the best in the Arab world. "Like all Arabs, he ruled with force," one Kuwaiti told me in 1989. "But alone of them, he tempered that force with mercy." Jabir sponsored a lively parliament, the only one among the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf. When a pro-democracy movement began earlier this year, his response was hardly enthusiastic, but it was moderate. Citizens exercised wide rights to freedom of speech. In short, Sheikh Jabir was the model of a benign desert autocrat.

Kuwait should not be confused with Saudi Arabia, its much larger and better-known neighbor. In nearly all ways, Kuwait is a more appealing place. Sheikh Jabir never imposed King Fahd's brand of control on travel, nor did he chop off hands and heads. In Kuwait, women drove cars, joined men in university classrooms, shared business space with them and held positions of responsibility in the government. Alcohol was prohibited to be sure, but the many infringements went largely unpunished. Unlike the Saudi dynasty, with its centuries-old association to the Wahhabi version of Islam, the Sabah dynasty did not try to impose a form of extreme fundamentalism either on its own people or on the outside world. In all things, the Kuwaitis were more modest, more amiable.

Though never tested until now, the government's popularity has been established by the Iraqi invasion. Despite Saddam Hussein's frenzied efforts to find a Kuwaiti to rule the country in his name, no quisling turned up. Instead, the new "revolutionary" rulers and soldiers are to a man Iraqi. The refusal of even the most disgruntled subjects to betray their emir is an extraordinary tribute to any leader, and especially to a monarch.

The human tragedy goes beyond the Kuwaitis themselves, a minority in their own country, and includes the 1.2 million noncitizens. The foreigners will not suffer in equal measure from the invasion. For some -- Sri Lankan construction workers and Filipina maids -- it only means returning home, out of work, earlier than planned. But hundreds of thousands of workers and their families made Kuwait their permanent home. Although rigorously excluded from the country's political life, they had a chance to settle and prosper. Born in Kuwait, they know no other home. Now they will find their livelihood gone and their presence perhaps unwelcome. For many of the 300,000 or more Palestinians, this will mean packing their bags once again. Who will take them this time?

Kuwaiti foreign policy reflected this spirit of tolerance. In the effort to maintain good relations with nearly everyone, the government gave away billions of dollars in aid and tried to serve as a conciliator. Unlike many of its oil-rich peers, it neither supported terrorist groups nor sought to shape a new international order.

Short of a miracle, the placid, commercial and intensely social life of Kuwait is dead. If Jabir left his subjects alone to cultivate their own gardens, Saddam Hussein will yoke them to work on his. If Kuwaiti money once fostered a society of individualists, it will now be used to build the Iraqi military machine. The good life is no more. Men, who enjoyed large incomes for nominal work, will work harder and earn less. Women will learn about a life without servants and about shortages of staple foods. Children will trade foreign schools for the rigors of political indoctrination. Freedoms of speech, press and movement will be remembered with regret.

One Iraqi writer has termed the Baath government of Saddam Hussein a "republic of fear," and the term is apt. Since seizing power in 1968, he and the other rulers have refined a system of control and intimidation that resembles that of Stalin and Mao. Today Saddam combines absolute power with thuggish ambition; the 17 million Iraqis are no more than the vehicle for him to achieve personal power. Now the Kuwaitis are also a means toward that end.

When Iraqi troops entered Kuwait on Aug. 2, an era of innocence abruptly came to an end. The tribulations that lie ahead cannot be predicted, but it is clear that one of the few lights in the Middle East has been extinguished.

The writer, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, visited Kuwait most recently last year.