Investments in the United States by the oil-rich Gulf states may be threatened by last week's decision to stop Kuwait from buying oil and gas interests on US federal land.
Senior Kuwaiti officials describe Interior Secretary James G. Watt's statement declaring Kuwait a ''nonreciprocal nation'' under the federal Mineral Leasing Act as ''stupid and unwise in the current investment climate.''
Mr. Watt told a March 11 news conference in Washington that Kuwait is ''discriminating against US citizens and corporations seeking to hold petroleum interests in the Gulf country.'' The secretary charged that Kuwait had forced US companies to relinquish their holdings in its energy resources but had not touched concessions held by Japanese, British, Dutch, and Spanish interests.
''Because we are committed to free trade that works in both directions, we cannot condone a practice which shuts out Americans while allowing access to citizens and corporations of other nations,'' Mr. Watt said.
The Interior Department has yet to determine whether Kuwait ''can continue to hold the lands they now have.''
Evidently embarrassed by the interior secretary's decision, senior Kuwaiti officials expressed shock and dismay. Kuwait had lobbied in recent months with the help of, among others, former President Ford against banning Kuwait from investing in US federal land.
Kuwaiti officials compare Mr. Watt's decision with the 1980 US freeze on Iranian assets in the US, enacted in retaliation for the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran.
''People are panicking and wondering what the United States wants,'' said Dr. Mohammad al-Rumaihi, a prominent Kuwaiti intellectual and editor of the Al-Arabi magazine.
''We are counting on living off our investments in the West, but you are striking at our lifeline,'' he said, adding, ''Today it is Sante Fe, tomorrow it will be something else.''
Among possible ways of retaliation Kuwaitis suggest:
* A withdrawal of Kuwaiti funds from US banks.
* Joint action by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.
* A selective boycott of US goods.
But some Kuwaiti officials, not swayed by their emotions, cautioned that Kuwait has few possibilities to counter the US measure.
Few countries are capable of absorbing the vast amounts of money Kuwait has available for investment. ''There is a limit to the threat,'' one well-informed source said, adding that ''European markets cannot all of the sudden absorb $5 to $6 billion.''
These officials warn, however, that Mr. Watt's decision may make Gulf investors think twice before starting new US projects.
Kuwait's state-owned Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, in the largest investment ever by Mideast interests in a publicly traded US corporation, bought Sante Fe International Corporation for $2.5 billion in 1981. Sante Fe International, headquartered in Alhambra, Calif., is a major petroleum drilling, exploration, and services company, and also has engineering and construction interests. Sante Fe had acquired $9 million worth of federal energy leases before the Kuwaiti takeover.
Kuwaiti officials argue that Kuwaiti law restricts ownership rights in the country's energy resources exclusively to the Kuwaiti government. They say that Kuwait paid full compensation when it nationalized foreign oil interests in the early 1970s.
Residual Japanese interests remain only in offshore oil fields in the neutral zone shared by both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which is excluded from the limitations of the US law. Royal Dutch/Shell's interest in an offshore Kuwaiti concession has long been suspended. British and Spanish interests, according to Kuwaiti sources, were also relinquished years ago.
''We are a small country,'' one senior Kuwaiti official said. ''Do you want us to be swallowed by foreign interests once we break down the barriers defending our sovereignty? That's impossible.'' Kuwait's minister of state for Cabinet affairs, Abdel Aziz Hussein, told reporters that his government will insist that the Sante Fe takeover agreement be carried out. Mr. Hussein added that the agreement had been concluded legally and with the consent of all parties concerned, including the US government.
Kuwait's National Assembly is expected to debate Mr. Watt's decision today (March 15), amid calls for Kuwaiti retaliatory action.
The chairman of the Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Company, Faisal Kazmawi, warned that ''there are not many oil companies in the world with a lot of cash available to spend on large-scale exploration programs.'' Mr. Watt's decision, he said, contradicted US interests.
Charging that the decsion was ''the work of the Zionist lobby,'' Mr. Kazmawi said it could affect the $1 billion that Kuwait Petroleum Corporation was planning to inject into Sante Fe's exploration budget over the next five years.'' He added that a large part of that sum was to be spent in the US.
Mr. Watt's decision comes at a time of growing Arab exasperation with US Middle East policy - a major foreign policy dilemma for Kuwait and the Gulf states - and increasing suspicion that the US refuses to take Arab interests into account.
''The American decision is a political one and is one of the American anti-Arab stances,'' commented Kuwait's Al-Rai al-Amm newspaper.
The newspaper, voicing comments by both Kuwaiti government officials and intellectuals, charged the US wants to punish Kuwait for its support of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab boycott of Israel.
Many diplomats believe that emotions will ultimately calm down.
Senior Kuwaiti oil officials say they have ''more than 100 alternatives under consideration.'' Kuwait will continue to buy mineral rights in areas not owned by the US federal government, according to Mr. Kazmawi.