DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA -- This country, at the center of international efforts to cope with the first major crisis of the post-Cold War era, is growing nervous about its new front-line status as tens of thousands of Western troops pour into Islam's holy land and bring with them the potential for a devastating war against another Moslem nation.
So far, the ruling Saud family seems to have accepted the enormous risks involved in the U.S.-led drive to roll back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
The threat posed to the kingdom by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, combined with the rapid U.S. military buildup here, appear to have fortified King Fahd's resolve to engage in the raw political dealings among badly divided Arab nations that lie ahead but that the Saudis traditionally have eschewed.
Most senior Saudi princes seem convinced that the price the kingdom may pay in war-related damage -- and the billions of dollars it already is paying for American and other foreign troops -- is worth it to thwart the Iraqi leader, whom they regard as a bully.
Yet there are signs that the Saudi mood may be changing. Talks with a wide variety of Saudi princes, officials, businessmen and ordinary people in the last month revealed an ambiguity creeping back into Saudi statements about the wisdom of seeing the kingdom involved in a devastating war with Iraq.
Fahd's initial reluctance to have the kingdom turned into a launching pad for an American-led attack on another Arab nation was echoed by his defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, at a Sept. 2 news conference. Sultan said the kingdom would not allow itself to be used for any kind of military action by outside forces that was not purely in defense of the kingdom.
His statement was taken by some outsiders as a temporary ploy by the Saudi government to entice Saddam to release American hostages by assuaging his fears of a U.S. attack. But it was warmly received among even the most pro-American Saudis.
This ambiguity toward going to war seemed to increase as Saudis began to realize it may be months before the Bush administration and the U.S. military are deployed with sufficient strength to take any military steps toward liberating Kuwait.
As time goes by, there is also a clearer realization that the kingdom, particularly the Eastern Province, where its oil facilities are located, is likely to be a prime target for Iraqi missile attacks, perhaps involving chemical weapons.
Saudi society has not had to deal with war, self-sacrifice and destruction for decades. The kingdom avoided direct involvement in all the Arab-Israeli wars, concentrating instead on spending $550 billion from its massive oil earnings to build a modern country with a cradle-to-grave welfare system.
Saudis have yet to experience firsthand the ravages of warfare in the way that their Iraqi, Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian neighbors have. During the eight-year Iran-Iraq struggle, not a single bomb or shell fell on Saudi territory.
Suddenly Western reporters are shattering Saudi nerves and self-confidence with probing questions about whether they are ready for missiles and poison gases. In an apparent indication that Saudis now take such threats seriously, Fahd has ordered gas masks purchased abroad for every Saudi and foreigner in the kingdom.
By the same token, Americans and other Westerners working here at the big state-run oil company, Saudi Aramco, have sent home 4,000 of their dependents, while almost 600 workers, many of them Filipinos, have quit. This, too, has helped stir Saudi fears for the future and caused many to ask whether war with Iraq is worth it.
On the surface, signs of these Saudi concerns are not immediately apparent, and the government has sought to preserve a business-as-usual appearance. There are no air raid or civil defense drills, and windows are not being taped to reduce the danger from flying glass. Other than the frequent sight of Saudi and foreign soldiers in camouflaged battle dress passing in cars or shopping in stores, there is no obvious indication that this is a society preparing for war.
But the sense of Saudi doubt about the path they have embarked on comes through in informal conversations.
One indicator is an oft-expressed desire to see Saddam eliminated by an internal political upheaval or assassination by the Central Intelligence Agency or some other secret service.
"Remember, we have to continue living in this neighborhood -- and with Iraq," remarked one Saudi.
Saudis who do favor military action are constantly questioning American reporters about how long it will be before the presumed almighty U.S. military goes into action to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
These Saudis fear that time is on the side of Saddam, that he is slowly making headway among the Arab masses with his anti-American and anti-Saudi propaganda -- propaganda that is likely to cause the kingdom trouble before long.
Listening to the crude Radio Baghdad broadcasts aimed at the "American soldiers in the burning Arabian desert," it is hard to believe Iraqi propaganda could succeed.
But the Saudis were concerned enough to invite 350 Islamic religious leaders and scholars to the holy city of Mecca to discuss the theological justification for calling in non-Moslem troops to defend their kingdom.
They also made certain that the scholars toured Mecca and Medina so they could see -- and tell their followers -- that no American or other "infidel" troops are there.
One senior Saudi government official, explaining his nervousness about the implications for the kingdom of a long, drawn-out struggle with Saddam, said he was sure the Iraqis would stir up demonstrations against the United States and Saudi Arabia throughout the Moslem world.
Asked how long he thought the kingdom could afford politically to sustain the U.S. military presence, the official replied without hesitation, "Ramadan" -- the Islamic month of fasting, which begins in mid-March. The extreme outside limit, he said, was June, when Moslems make their pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. Having 150,000 American troops still in the kingdom at the same time that 1 million to 2 million Moslems arrive from all over the world would be very embarrassing to the kingdom, he said.
The worst scenario Saudis conjure up is one of no war and no diplomatic solution, leaving Saddam, his ruthless regime and his million-man army intact on the kingdom's border.
Saudi and U.S. analysts have indicated their belief that it is still possible that Saddam will dumbfound the world once again with a totally unexpected move: the withdrawal of his forces from Kuwait except the two northern islands of Warba and Bubiyan. That would still assure him an outlet to the Persian Gulf and control over a narrow strip of oil-rich borderland.
The Bush administration, Congress and the American public then would have to decide whether it was still worth sacrificing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American lives for two islands and a narrow strip of land.
The Saudis are beginning to believe this is precisely what Saddam intends to do because of the way the Iraqis are reported to be systematically stripping Kuwait City of everything from telephones and stoplights to hospital incubators and computers and hauling the booty back to Iraq.
Such a partial Iraqi withdrawal could place Saudi Arabia and its Moslem and Western allies in a serious dilemma and undermine their unity. It might also undo the Saudi family's resolve to risk war because the potential marginal gains or President Bush's relatively abstract goals of shaping international relations in the post-Cold War era no longer would seem worth the risk of destruction.
It is scenarios like these that led one Western diplomat to remark, "Saddam still has lots of options."