DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA -- Shoes off, legs crossed, teacups in motion, six professors from the university here were sitting around after dinner musing about the future of their country.

The Saudi Arabian political system has to be opened up to allow citizens to participate, they said. Some forum must be set up for developing a consensus about the role of women -- a forum in which women must participate. Islamic fundamentalists are going to have to be controlled in the universities. Contact with American troops should be encouraged, not restricted, to increase Saudi Arabia's exposure to Western ideas.

These professors were not dissidents or radicals. They were prominent members of the new Saudi Arabian establishment, fluent in English, holders of advanced degrees from American universities, at ease in conversation with foreigners, financially comfortable. They said they think of Saudi Arabia as an island of stability and individual liberty in a regional sea of repression and violence.

But they also said the country is approaching a time of painful, potentially disruptive choices about its future. Transformed in a generation from mud-hut backwater to technologically advanced petro-power, Saudi Arabia is searching for a social formula that will protect its traditions while accommodating the inevitable demand for change.

"We have already made all the easy decisions," one of the professors said. "Now we have to think about where we are going."

In conversations across the country with oil industry executives, business leaders, educators and government officials -- all men, of course -- the theme recurred. When the country had nothing, the Saudis said, it was easy to know what to do. Everybody agreed on the need to build roads, hospitals and airports, to electrify the villages, to send all the children to school.

Now all that is done. What next? Can this theocratic state accommodate itself to the material well-being and increasing sophistication of its people? The shock of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, its exposure of Saudi military weakness and the arrival of 200,000 American troops appear to have accelerated a self-evaluation process that was already underway.

"When you have no schools, how can you make a mistake in deciding whether to build 100 or 1,000?" said Hisham Nazer, oil minister and acting planning minister. But now the universities are turning out graduates faster than the economy can provide jobs for them.

This potential sore point is acknowledged in the country's latest five-year development plan, which calls for more vocational and technical education to "reorient the training system toward labor market needs" -- that is, make sure the young people have good jobs so they don't become a political liability, as in many other developing countries.

Of the 575,000 Saudis expected to enter the labor force in the next five years, according to Planning Ministry estimates, 68,600 will have university degrees and 30,300 of those will be women.

Some younger Saudis said the political system is open to question because an educated citizenry will no longer accept an absolute monarchy in which the Koran dictates social policy and crucial decisions -- such as the invitation to U.S. troops to help defend the country against Iraq -- are made behind the closed doors of the royal palaces.

Even some of the young princes, the most privileged of the privileged, said Saudis are restless about the current system of lawmaking in which the ulema, or religious elders, "are like your Supreme Court. The law is what they say it is," as one of them put it.

"People want change, but they want it by evolution. You can't just scrap tradition," said one of the many young princes waiting for generational change to move them into positions of power. "But you have to recognize {that} we, the royal family, have always been an instrument of change."

This is now a highly urbanized society, subject to modern big-city problems. Cities where everyone used to live side by side, regardless of income, in neighborhoods based on family and tribe, are now economically segregated. The very rich live in lavish suburban villas, isolated from their former neighbors. At the same time, restaurants, sports complexes and other diversions, previously unknown, are changing patterns of family life.

In the words of the five-year plan, "The emergence of an urban society has led to changes in the social structure . . . . Problems associated with anomie, delinquency and substance abuse will continue to be countered with preventive treatment and rehabilitation measures."

In smaller towns and villages, several Saudis said, the traditional authority figures -- the imam of the mosque and the local emir, or tribal ruler -- have been supplanted by police officers and government officials, usually from elsewhere, who do not play the same role of moral mentor.

A visitor returning to Saudi Arabia after an absence of a decade becomes aware almost immediately of striking social changes and new ideas. Bedouin women herding goats and sheep drive pickup trucks to steer the flocks -- exercising a privilege still denied to urban women. In Jiddah, the commercial capital, many women have stopped veiling their faces in public.

Newspapers, controlled by the Ministry of Information, print debates about such topics as whether the rich spend too much money on frivolities and whether the millions of foreign workers in the country are corrupting Saudi traditions. This fall Saudi television showed a documentary about in vitro fertilization, filmed at a hospital in Riyadh. The five-year economic plan suggests development of a tourism industry, a radical proposal in a country that issues no tourist visas except for the annual Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca.

The plan, an official state policy document, also recommends "policies to enhance the participation of Saudi women in the development of the kingdom," including employment in goverment jobs.

Would that include women in the Saudi diplomatic corps? "Why not?" said one of the professors.