JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 20 -- While war drums rumble around them, Saudi Arabians are intensely discussing whether and how their domestic affairs should be reordered, once the Persian Gulf crisis is over.

President Bush probably will not see much of this debate when he arrives here Wednesday for a two-day visit with the Saudi leadership and U.S. troops. Like many aspects of life in the kingdom, it is largely hidden from view. But the debate will clearly shape the future of America's key ally in the gulf.

On one side of the debate are religious conservatives who see Saudi Arabia's new international exposure as a threat to its uniquely strict Islamic way of life. On the other are those Saudis who, while devout Moslems, see in the gulf crisis an opportunity for embracing long-hoped-for political and social changes.

Caught between them is King Fahd, leader of the ruling House of Saud. Traditionally the arbiter between the two sides, the government has made clear that debate over internal affairs should be postponed until after the crisis. But the discussion continues, reverberating across this desert land in royal palaces, mosques, offices and living rooms.

"People want to know, after all is said and done, what is going to happen in the future," said Khalid Maeena, editor of Arab News, an English-language Jiddah daily.

From its birth nearly six decades ago, Saudi Arabia's central dilemma has been how to blend its purist, Wahhabi brand of Islam with 20th-century technology and freedoms. Unlike in the past, however, when change incubated slowly in the isolation of this desert kingdom, today the country is in touch with the world as never before.

Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait in August flooded this country with a quarter of a million U.S. military personnel and hundreds of probing journalists. It thrust Saudi Arabia to center stage internationally. And it presented this nation with the most severe external threat, both political and military, that it has ever faced.

Since the government-controlled news media here steer clear of controversy, most of the debate is not publicly recorded. But the lines were sharply illuminated by the recent uproar over a protest by 50 women seeking the right to drive. To the dismay of progressive Saudis, the women were arrested after they drove on a Riyadh street, suspended from their jobs and told by the interior minister on television that what they did was "stupid."

The religious forces had the last say, issuing an Islamic edict, or fatwa, that deemed female driving un-Islamic. Publication of the fatwa by the government means that now women who drive not only offend Saudi custom, which has been the case for decades, but also commit a punishable offense against the law.

In an indication of how divisive and bitter Saudi Arabia's societal cleavage can be, the women have received threatening phone calls. University professors who took part in the protest drive have been insulted by their students and pamphlets listing the women's names and phone numbers under the headings "harlots" and "communists" were sent anonymously by fax to newspapers and elsewhere.

There is no indication that such harassment has had sanction from the religious authorities, and it has been privately condemned by many people who support the ban on women driving.

The reason Saudi Arabia, citing religion, is the only country to bar women from driving stems from its history. When the kingdom's founder, Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, set out to unite the disparate tribes on the peninsula in the 1920s and '30s, he enlisted and got the help of Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahhabi sect of Islam, formed in the 18th century by Abdul-Wahhab, who wanted to adhere more closely to the Koran. Its leaders have enjoyed exalted status with the royal family ever since.

Led by the Council of Grand Ulema, a group of recognized Islamic teachers and scholars, these people see the preservation of their brand of Islam, which frowns on dancing, singing, unveiled women and photographing the human face, as Saudi Arabia's reason for existence. The fact that Islam's two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina, are in this country adds to their authority.

They view the presence of non-Moslem military forces here as a terrible calamity, but one they grudgingly accept for now out of necessity. For them, Saudi Arabia needs no changes, especially not any that would make it seem more Westernized.

There are some people "who want this society to be Westernized, who think it would be better for our society," said Abdul Kadertash, editor of the Islamic newspaper al-Muslimoon. "I don't think the majority of our people buy and accept this. We want to be unique. We are not against change but we are against those who want that change to be like others.

"This is the only society which tries to be an example for others. So why are people trying to change it? Why? If people are happy, why are we talking about change?"

Kadertash supports the ban on women driving, but denounced the personal harassment the women received afterwards.

In the past, Saudi religious leaders fought a losing battle against introduction of telephones, television and education of women in the kingdom. Their influence is why Saudi television is considered by many foreigners to be the most boring in the world.

On the streets, the religious police enforce the strict dress code for women, make sure females are not accompanied by anyone other than a relative, and ensure that men are praying at prayer time and all commerce has stopped.

In the absence of public opinion polls, there is no way to gauge accurately support for these practices. But most Saudis and diplomats agree they enjoy considerable following in a population that has always been very conservative.

Perhaps more importantly, Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist style of Islam is not a waning force. Increasingly, youths of university age are being educated in Saudi Arabia, a result of this country's expanded educational system. Thus, fewer of them have extended exposure to the outside world than those who came before them. In addition, the young people have not been left untouched by the world-wide renaissance of Islamic purism.

A Western diplomat who follows Islamic councils here, said that the younger members of the Council of Grand Ulema "are more conservative in their religious views than the older ones."

A young, Western-educated member of the royal family, who asked not to be identified, lamented that "religious extremists are increasing in number and have influence on a large majority who tend to be conservative, but not extremist. Islam used to be a way of life in Saudi Arabia. They are trying to make it a disciplined ideology."

On the other side of the debate are those Saudis who believe their country needs more contact with the outside world and who chafe under what they call the "tyranny" of their country's religious leaders. Typically, they come from the growing entrepreneurial middle class that is increasingly important as Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its oil-based economy.

They are confident with Westerners and attracted to the United States and familiar with it, since many studied there. Wealthy and worldly wise, they resent the patrols by the religious police as intrusions in their personal lives.

Businessmen say they are frustrated by a slow, highly centralized bureaucracy that leaves no one accountable when urgent decisions are not made. Some resent the royal family's monopoly on the economy, and the stipends given the thousands of princes and princesses from birth. Many of them are asking where the billions of dollars the government has spent on defense have gone.

Above all, these Saudis, who have like-minded peers in the bureaucracy and royal family, want a more informative press and public debate over social and political issues. They complain that their views are not reflected on TV or in newspapers, to which the religious conservatives have unlimited access.

They say they are tired of receiving overseas publications with pages ripped out because of less-than-flattering references to Saudi Arabia and express anger that their own media did not report Iraq's invasion of Kuwait for two days and that the government said nothing about it for several more days.

"Why was there no debate about it?" a young Saudi government employee asked plaintively after the ban on women drivers. "When I think about my sisters, I feel so sorry for them."

Many Saudis privately expressed strong support for the women and said they opposed the ban, but they said they would not say the same in public because they fear harassment from what they call the religious "fanatics."

For these Saudis, the presence of 250,000 U.S. troops here is as important psychologically as it is physically, for it symbolizes their political aspirations.

"We hope that this will mean more change," a Dhahran scientist said in private. "We hope this government, now that they know the U.S. government is our friend, will be more attentive when it whispers things about democratic changes. I'm sure the royal family wants to make changes. But they are held back" by the religious leaders.

Saudis like him are asking for a greater role in decision making, a process now largely confined to the king and those he chooses to consult, mainly royal family members. They are saying that Saudi Arabia's style of personal rule and informal consultations is no longer adequate, that its increasingly complex society and economy require more systematic decision making.

Their agenda does not include an elected parliament, partly out of a deep belief in evolutionary change and partly out of fear that elections would fill parliament with the religious fundamentalists they are trying to counter and who they believe already have too much influence in the royal court.

"We wouldn't like to see another Iran here," said the scientist. He and others welcomed Fahd's recent promise to set up an appointed consultative council, although some Saudis remain skeptical until it is in place because of similar, unkept promises in the past.

A young U.S.-educated businessman in Jiddah, depressed about the female driving incident, said he is writing an article about reform in Saudi Arabia entitled, "The Impossible Change."

"I sometimes wish I had never left" Saudi Arabia, he sighed. "The more you know, the more you want."