DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, AUG. 27 -- "It was sort of a shock," said the Saudi official. "The whole thing is a very new situation for us."

He wasn't talking about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, but about the American-led media invasion of Saudi Arabia. A motley corps of nearly 250 print, television and radio reporters, producers, sound and camera crews, technicians and helpers are now here.

The Saudi government has long been extremely wary of Western reporters, uncertain whether they are friends or foes and considering them akin to unguided missiles likely to land on the social and political weaknesses of this highly conservative Islamic monarchy.

But for years now, there has been a tug of war underway between Western-educated, progressive Saudis, eager to open the kingdom to outside scrutiny, and traditionalists fighting to keep the kingdom sealed off from any criticism.

The Ministry of Information here has long been jokingly called "the Ministry of Denials" by both Arab and Western reporters because so often it issues terse statements denying this or that outside report about the kingdom while seldom providing any substantive information about anything.

It was against this background that the government suddenly found itself besieged by thousands of requests from the international media for visas after the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

Nobody in the kingdom was ready to deal with such a horde of reporters, not only because of the possibility of an Iraqi invasion but also because many Saudi press officials were on vacation abroad.

"The press was not one of our priorities, and our initial reaction was to just let them send a pool," said the official, referring to the 17-person Pentagon press pool that arrived here Aug. 13, a few days after the first U.S. troops landed.

But the Saudi Embassy in Washington soon found itself engulfed by a tidal wave of requests for visas, and the idea of relying on the pool to assuage the hunger for news about GIs sweating it out in the desert soon proved politically impossible.

Top U.S. media executives began a concerted campaign to get the doors of the Saudi kingdom opened, and within three days of the pool's arrival, other American reporters began trickling in, most of their passports stamped mistakenly with visas good for a one-month stay.

To handle the media onslaught, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, stripped his embassy of the "best and the brightest," sending nine officials over to help the stodgy Ministry of Information cope with the invasion.

"At the start, it was difficult," said a Saudi official who has been deeply involved in dealing with the media here, including a host of star TV anchors and reporters all wanting exclusive interviews with top-level Saudi officials who seldom speak in public.

The government set up a media office at Dhahran International Hotel, sandwiched between the civilian airport and the Eastern Province's main King Abdulaziz Airbase. It is perfectly located logistically, and the U.S. military also has its media operations center in the hotel's first-floor Makkah Room.

But the hotel soon proved far too small. Its 190 rooms were already mostly filled with more than 300 Kuwaiti refugees, providing arriving reporters with their first sense of the human tragedy of the invasion. Most reporters have had to find rooms at the more luxurious French-run Meridien Hotel, about a 10-minute car ride away.

Saudi press officials, aware of the American media's voracious appetite for news, have done their best to please reporters but have found themselves hindered by their own secretive government.

"Everything new is a struggle here," said one exasperated official who has been leading the battle to get officials to talk to reporters.

After one weekend of alarm and anger over whether all reporters outside the Pentagon pool were going to be asked to leave, the relationship between reporters and Saudi officials seems to have settled down to one of mutual understanding and the normal occasional frictions.

In one week, members of the media were driven to the northern border; flown to Jeddah to interview Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Faisal, Petroleum Minister Hisham Nazer and another top official; then taken to Taif to meet the exiled Kuwaiti government's leadership and also to Hafar al-Batin to see Saudi and other Arab forces digging in to defend the kingdom.

Getting to Hafar al-Batin turned into a nightmare because the Saudis had different lists with different names on each one. It took three attempts to even load the buses to go to the airport. In the end, there were four empty seats, and some reporters were left behind.

Saudi officials also are still grappling with what are called the "ground rules" about when officials or locations can or cannot be identified, often telling different reporters different things on the same trip or changing their minds along the way.

The ultimate example of Saudi press secrecy occurred during the trip to Hafar al-Batin. At one point, a colonel who identified himself as the director of the Ministry of Defense's press department refused to give his name when one of the 80 reporters asked for it in order to contact him later. Another reporter asked for his office telephone number but he refused to give that too.

"It will be in the telephone directory when it is published next year," he replied.

The Saudis also have their gripes about American reporters.

"They are hard to please, and they are very disorganized," said one Saudi press official philosophically. "When we put up a list for the plane trip to Taif, 86 signed up but only 50 showed up to go.

"You can't satisfy an American reporter," he continued. "You give him the tip of your finger and he would like to have your whole arm."

Then there is the American ignorance of royalty and royal titles. American reporters don't seem to be able to get straight whom one addresses as "your highness" and whom as "your majesty." The latter title, reserved exclusively for King Fahd, is often used by reporters addressing princes and ministers, to the Saudis' chagrin.

But they have become good-humored about such social blunders. "You have promoted me," said one minister jokingly after a television interview. "I hope you're not going to get me into trouble with my boss {the king}."