Kuwait's territory stretches no more than 80 miles from its capital, but its $100 billion in investments extend around the globe, from Singapore's tallest office complex to the London dockyards' biggest development, from a southern California-based oil exploration and engineering concern to gas stations in Hungary.

The Persian Gulf nation, now controlled by Iraq, often seemed before last Thursday's invasion more like a multinational corporation than a sovereign country. Sometimes referred to as Kuwait Inc., the country's assets appeared to float beyond easy reach or comprehension.

The far-flung nature of Kuwait's financial empire has made the spoils of conquest elusive for the Iraqi invaders. Iraqi troops have broken into Kuwait's central bank and commercial banks in search of money and gold, but found little to take home.

"There is a little gold there, but not much," said one well-informed Kuwaiti. "Most of it is with the Fed in New York, under the third basement protected by the solid rock of Manhattan."

Four days after the United States froze Kuwaiti assets to prevent Iraq from seizing them, the Treasury Department still says it is struggling to identify exactly what those holdings are.

The vast extent of the Kuwait portfolio makes its fate a matter of concern for the world of international finance. Kuwait is a major player in world currency markets, a major customer for U.S. Treasury securities and has stock in scores of major blue-chip companies around the world.

The U.S. freeze, which was followed by similar action in Europe and Japan, might put a crimp in global markets, but the world of international finance would likely be even more unsettled should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gain large stakes in major Western companies. "To put the assets in the hands of a conqueror who would liquidate and spend them, that would hurt stability," said a former Kuwaiti investment adviser.

The outcome will be decided by jurisprudence, not by tanks in the desert. The blocking of assets can last indefinitely. Cuba's assets in the United States, for instance, have been frozen since 1962.

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act, under which the freeze was declared, "is a total grant of power" to the president, said Abram J. Chayes, a Harvard Law School professor and former State Department legal adviser.

The vast Kuwaiti holdings have been built over the past quarter-century. Because all mineral rights in the country belong to the government, the sheikdom began to run budget surpluses in the 1950s, when it was still a British protectorate. Today, following the oil price boom of the 1970s, the surpluses are huge.

While Saudi Arabia has plowed billions of dollars into airports, palaces, universities, weapons systems and unprofitable domestic industries, Kuwait has saved. Kuwait has set up two investment funds, of approximately $40 billion each. One of them, the Fund for Future Generations, receives 10 percent of state revenues every year and the government is forbiddden to touch either the principal or interest until the year 2001.

In the 1950s, Kuwaiti surpluses were managed by the Bank of England and later by the Kuwait Investment Office in London. After the sheikdom's independence in 1961, the Kuwait Investment Office, now located in an inconspicuous office across the street from St. Paul's Cathedral, continued to operate with a great deal of autonomy, although it was technically part of the Kuwait Finance Ministry.

In 1984, the Kuwaiti government established the Kuwait Investment Authority to oversee all foreign holdings and to bring the Kuwait Investment Office under tighter control. The Investment Authority has an eight-person board made up of the authority's managing director, the governor of the Central Bank, the finance and oil ministers, and four private Kuwaitis. The position of finance minister traditionally was held by a member of the royal family.

The investment philosophy of Kuwait has been cautious but savvy, many investment bankers say. "Kuwait has been a very good investor," said a former investment adviser to the government. "They are not speculators, they don't remove management. Their investments are not like the LBOs {leveraged buy-outs} of today. They pay good, solid money and they don't strip investment."

"As investors, they are conservative," said another investment adviser.

To avoid a backlash against oil-rich Arab investment, the Kuwaiti government tries to keep a low profile. It has substantial stakes in dozens of American companies, but it keeps each of those positions below the 5 percent threshold that would require public dislosure under the securities laws.

Still, Kuwait has been bold on occasion.

In the early 1970s, it bought a 20 percent stake in the giant German chemicals company, Hoechst, and 16 percent of Daimler (Mercedes) Benz. Both investments have risen sharply in value.

After the stock-market crash in October 1987, the British government was floundering in its efforts to sell its stake in British Petroleum Corp. Kuwait stepped in and bought 9.8 percent. "The British were very happy to see Kuwait come in and pick up the pieces, but then there were second thoughts," said a Kuwaiti adviser. Under pressure, Kuwait reduced its position.

Once Spain joined the European Community, Kuwait invested heavily there. It bought a paper manufacturer and has turned it into a giant industrial holding company with interest in 170 firms.

Kuwait has suffered setbacks, too. It has substantial real estate holdings in Texas that if sold today would result in heavy losses.

Portions of the Kuwait Investment Authority's portfolio have been parceled out to independent investment managers. Morgan Stanley manages a $3 billion chunk. Other American managers include J.P. Morgan Bank, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Citibank, sources close to the authority said.

A New York firm called Wafra also manages a fund of $2 billion to $3 billion on behalf of the Public Security Fund, a pension fund for Kuwaiti government employees and any Kuwaiti who wants to join voluntarily. Under the freeze imposed last week, those pension payments have stopped.

Besides the Investment Authority, the Kuwaiti government has used the Kuwait Petroleum Co. as a tool for making investments. Kuwait Petroleum's foreign holdings are estimated to be $10 billion to $20 billion, former Kuwaiti advisers say.

In 1981, Kuwait Petroleum paid $2.5 billion for California-based Santa Fe International, a medium-sized oil drilling and engineering firm. It was the first time a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries searched for oil beyond its own borders. That remains Kuwait's single biggest direct investment in the United States. The marriage of Santa Fe's know-how and Kuwaiti money helped the company through the oil slump that began the next year. But Santa Fe never quite fulfilled Kuwait Petroleum's ambitions to become a major player in exploration and production.

Kuwait Petroleum has been more successful in its "downstream" investments in refining and marketing of oil products. In Europe, it operates four refineries and about 4,500 service stations spread across Italy, Hungary, Scandinavia, Spain, Belgium and Britain. The chain of service stations, which bear the logo Q8, include thousands of stations previously operated by Gulf Oil Corp. and Mobil Corp.

With its widening network and vast crude oil reserves, Kuwait Petroleum is generally considered to have become one of the "seven sisters," a club of the biggest oil companies, which have dominated the business for most of the century. But among those, Kuwait Petroleum could be hardest hit by the asset freeze because of its constant need to buy and sell oil products.

Aside from the government's official assets, the royal family of Kuwait, the house of Sabah, has its own fortune. The 1960 constitution granted the family a government stipend of $35 million a year, an amount that would be worth more than three times as much today if adjusted for inflation. The royal family reduced the stipend to $28 million annually, but no one believes they are having to pinch their dinars.

While the Kuwaiti monarch, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, used that money to support an extended royal family, most Kuwaiti advisers say the royal family has salted much of it away. People who have met Sabah say he has a Chevrolet and lives modestly by the standards of Middle Eastern rulers. A Kuwaiti who has been to both Sabah's residence and that of Iraq's President Saddam described Saddam's palace as much more ostentatious.

"The ruler has a fortune of his own, but it is very, very difficult to estimate," says David Mizrahi, editor of the New York-based newsletter MidEast Report. He noted that, in the 1970s, one member of the royal family, Sheik Nasir Sabah, started his own venture, the Sharjah Group, which now has wide holdings of its own.