Oil wealth and the welfare state have combined to raise the specter of a potentially explosive Kuwait whose first-class citizens are threatened by second-class residents who vastly outnumber them.

Never officially mentioned, but rarely far from Kuwaitis' minds, is the maturity, its progress in providing welfare-state comforts to all who live here and the knowledge that the problem is more acute in Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Persian Gulf states.

Leading the fight to widen citizenship are generally the more successful, dynamic Kuwaitis, often from old families, who clearly perceive the long-term problems posed by unchanging policies. But they do not underestimate the traditional opposition in this conservative country that fears it will be swamped by newcomers who have not yet won their place in the sun.

Those who want change invoke enlightened self-interest.

After a generation of welfare often restricted to Kuwaitis, the non-Kuwaitis are more keenly competitive in school, university and work than Kuwaitis, largely because they have to be to make a decent living, it is argued.

Annual per capita income for Kuwaiti citizens -- among the world's highest -- hovers around $20,000. But a Bangladeshi working here as a garbage collector, for example, earns far less.

Suleiman Mutawa, personnel director at the Kuwait Oil Co., denounces a system that prevents him from recruiting bright non-Kuwaiti residents and training them for the future.

"To get a drilling superintendent I have to search the United States for three or four months and when I find my man he dictates his terms," he says, "because now those skills are found only in the United States whether we like it or not. In a few years' time I could find a young Arab, train him and I'd be sure he has his roots here and would stay here."

An added dividend would be to motivate Kuwaitis to compete, but Mutawa insists, "There are not enough Kuwaitis to manage the country properly anyhow.

"Anyone who tells you he can run Kuwait with Kuwaitis alone is a damm fool," he adds.

Mutawa believes granting citizenship to more foreigners would consolidate loyalty to the state, simplify manpower problems, lessen dependence on more immigration and motivate Kuwaitis to work harder.

Planning Ministry specialists are especially worried about motivating Kuwaitis and making them understand the limits of a welfare state.

"Why should every Kuwaiti family have an army of cooks and drivers and maids?" an official asked. "It's morally and economically mad in a in a population-poor country like ours. It would cost less to send all Kuwaitis to live in hotels in Geneva."

The Planning Ministry claims modest victories in charging the water and power ministries world-level prices for electricity still sold to the public at one-seventeenth of cost.

"We are the most wasteful users of electricity in the world," a planner said, "second only in per capita use to the United States, where most power is used in industry."

Charging the ministries true costs on the books does not mean that the consumers are being billed for full amount, but plans are afoot to levy an initial linkup fee.

Some Planning Ministry dreamers favor an income tax -- not because the government needs the money, but because they believe Kuwaitis should understand the relationship between effort and reward.

"We've been to the doctor and he's diagnosed the malady," Mutawa said. The problem remains how to proceed if indeed the reformers got the political go-ahead.

The largest of more than 100 nationalities living here are the Palestinians, thought to number more than 200,000. Conservatives invoke old Arab League resolutions binding member states not to naturalize Palestinians as the best reason not to change their status.

Although because of their statelessness the Palestinians tend to work hard and stay out of trouble, they are nonetheless suspect in many Kuwaiti eyes. But many Kuwaitis acknowledge their debt to the Palestinians in helping build this country, which was little more than an extended village of 300,000 inhabitants a generation ago.

The reformers have not thought out in any great detail how they would like to proceed with their plans. But many believe a first step should entail rapidly granting voting rights to the estimated 25,000 so-called second-class Kuwaiti citizens, who over the years have obtained a passport and other privileges of citizenship, who over the years have obtained a passport and other privileges of citizenship, but who will be enfranchised only in 1986.

A possible second step under discussion would be to grant many long-term residents a sort of "green card" status, so named after the U.S. immigration policy of entitling immigrants to enjoy all the rights and privileges involved in American citizenship except the right to vote. As of now, non-Kuwaitis are not allowed to own property or businesses even when they have Kuwaiti spouses.

"That would at least give us a breather," Mutawa argued, and allow the National Assembly to work out a rational approach to the problem.

No one wants to frighten the less successful Kuwaitis since "we cannot take off while others are still warming up their engines," he said.