KUWAIT -- This report was filed last week before telephone communications with Kuwait were cut.

On Tuesday, two days before Iraq invaded this complacent little sheikdom, a European ambassador placed an urgent call to Kuwait's civil defense chief to discuss the safety of his expatriate flock.

Sorry, the ambassador was told, but the head of civil defense is on vacation. Could he please call back in three weeks?

That about summed up the level of official preparedness within the House of Sabah -- as the Kuwaiti royal family is known -- on the eve of the Iraqi invasion that would drive the ruling emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, and other family members into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The ouster of the Sabahs, whose emirs have ruled Kuwait since 1756, came as a result of Iraqi aggression. But in the days before Iraqi troops stormed across the border early Thursday, it was clear that this emirate, for all its oil wealth, had some substantial political problems that the Sabahs and their government had not been addressing.

While Kuwait has a more open press than most Arab nations, it has quashed any real political debate since the mid-1970s and resisted a gathering movement for democracy here. Referring, before the invasion, to Kuwait's domestic politics, Muhammad Rumaihi, a sociologist and editor of Kuwait's al-Arabi magazine, said: "I believe we are in for a very hard time in front of us. It's {necessary} either to move ahead or the tide will cover you."

Kuwait's biggest problem was its inability to defend itself against its much larger and more powerful neighbors. Kuwait's small army of 20,000 obviously could not do it, but the Kuwaiti leadership was not willing to make strong military alliances with more powerful nations, like the United States, that might have deterred the Iraqis.

Kuwait's wary independence is partly explained by its history. The first emir, Sabah I, was selected by the other leading families to rule what amounted to a city-state of desert bedouins and adventurous seafarers who sailed their wooden dhows to the Far West to trade, or spent months at sea diving for pearls. Those traditions bred an independent streak and democratic spirit among the Kuwaitis that set them apart from their gulf brethren. Indeed, for much of 1980s, Kuwait was among the few Arab nations with even a semblance of democracy or free press.

The modern Sabahs tried to harness those free spirits -- and also to contain them. Four decades of dazzling oil revenues, spread among the native population of fewer than 800,000, added to the royal family's self-confidence. But to some of their poorer Arab neighbors -- and to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who came to work and settle in Kuwait -- the self-esteem of the ruling sheiks sometimes came across as arrogance.

Diplomats here said last week, before Iraq's invasion, that members of the Kuwaiti royal family had become acutely concerned about Iraqi pressure -- although, characteristically, they did not share this burden with their subjects, keeping the details of their dealings with the Iraqis from the local media.

Smaller than Switzerland, Kuwait has lived since its 1961 independence from Britain in a sort of political "Bermuda triangle," scrunched among the giants of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It has had to employ deft diplomacy, studied neutrality and sometimes large cash grants to keep from being swallowed up by its neighbors.

Then came the dispute with Iraq's cash-hungry leader Saddam Hussein, who accused wealthy Kuwait of violating production quotas of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and stealing Iraqi oil. It was "almost their worst diplomatic nightmare come true," said one Western diplomat here.

But even last week, fewer than 48 hours before the invasion, Kuwaitis didn't have any sense that they were standing on the edge of a precipice.

"I think Iraq knows that Kuwait is an independent country for a long time, and that it's not a piece of cake to be taken like that," said Mohammad Jasser, as he dropped off his children for an afternoon of skating in an indoor ice rink. The 40-year-old civil servant said he regarded the verbal thunder from Baghdad as "kind of negotiating -- you know, if you ask for 25 percent, you will get ten percent."

"Iraq also knows that Kuwait is not alone," said Jasser, his long white dishdasha, the traditional robe of gulf men, flapping against the family Mercedes in the stifling desert breeze. "Behind Kuwait is the United Kingdom and the United States."

Those back-ups weren't much help, as it turned out. But there was little sign of worry here in Kuwait city, a flat, sandy expanse of high-rise offices, expressways and colonnaded mansions set against the turquoise Persian Gulf waters.

Well-stocked shopping malls were still catering to leisurely consumers, not panicky hoarders. And after 5 in the afternoon, when the 120-degree-plus temperatures had dipped into the bearable zone, families were gathering on the local beaches for a swim.

"It's just a diplomatic problem about oil," remarked supervisor Mohammad Iskandar, 25, as he handled customer queries in the Sultan Center gourmet supermarket.

"We have experience" with the Iraqis, Iskander said, recalling how the two countries fought over their border for two weeks back in 1961. "So we can tell it's not a big deal. If anything was going to go wrong, it would have happened during the gulf war. We had five explosions in one day at that time. Now the war is over and we're relaxed."

Kuwait city had an empty air about it last week, even before the Iraqis surged across the border. But that was not because its residents had fled in fright. August is high vacation time. And Kuwaitis, whose petro-dollars have made them one of the wealthiest citizenries in the world, had not let Iraq's threats interfere with their summer habit of escaping to London or Nice for weeks on end.

Some Kuwaitis, who were visiting Iraq, came rushing home last month after Baghdad began accusing their country of economic sabotage, military aggression and "stealing" oil from a disputed reservoir on their common border. Feeling uncomfortable in Baghdad, those Kuwaitis headed south, passing the Iraqi military buildup on the way.

One of them told of stopping in a roadside shop enroute. After selecting his purchases, he handed a bill to the Iraqi shopkeeper, who stuffed it in his shirt pocket and refused to give back change. When he protested, the Kuwaiti recalled, the shopkeeper replied, "Oh no, you've been stealing our oil."

Any Kuwaiti who depended only on the local media for his news would hardly have worried about Iraq's bellicosity. None of Kuwait's several newspapers, nor the state-run radio or television, mentioned the Iraqi mobilization just a 90-minute ride from Kuwait city.

The official Kuwaiti shyness about reporting the troop presence seemed a bit futile, given that the British Broadcasting Corp., Voice of America and the Cable News Network are all easily available here. And, for a blow-by-blow version of exactly what Iraq had been angry about, all Kuwaitis had to do was tune into Iraq's nightly TV news.