BURAIDA, Saudi Arabia: Far from the palaces of the capital and the Red Sea coast, this is Saudi Arabia's religious heartland, where beards are worn untrimmed and resentment toward those in power is not easily disguised.
It was in Buraida two years ago that Saudi dissent last spilled into the streets, when several thousand people joined a radical cleric in a 36-hour protest. In the clampdown that followed, the authorities arrested the cleric and hundreds of dissidents and have banned political discussion from the country's mosques.
But along a main street of shabby shops and Toyota pickup trucks, there were some still willing to divulge to a Western visitor their unhappiness with the monarchy that has ruled Saudi Arabia since it was forged 64 years ago.
"The people are angry, but for now, there's not much we can do," a shopkeeper in his 30's said. "We talk to each other, and we talk to God."
Rocked by two terrorist bombings in a year, and facing a potent blend of flat oil revenues, a population boom and a religious militancy that increasingly questions the legitimacy of its rulers, Saudi Arabia is facing evident challenges at home.
They may be most clearly on display here, in this city at the historic heart of the Nejd region where Abdel Ariz al-Saud led a religious brotherhood drawn from local tribes in the conquests that gave him thrall over all of Arabia.
"These guys are under pressure in ways they've never been under pressure before," an American Government official said of the Saudi royal family.
In recent conversations around the country, the vast majority of Saudis assured a visitor of their strong support for the monarchy, while senior Saudi officials insisted that there was no reason for alarm.
"One thing to keep in mind in thinking about dissent in the kingdom is how minor it is, and how abhorrent it is to the majority of Saudis, particularly when violent methods are used," said Prince Turki bin Faisal, who heads the country's Department of General Intelligence.
But within the Clinton Administration, American officials say, a gloomier view has been expressed in recent months by the Central Intelligence Agency, with analysts beginning to question how long the monarchy can survive.
An Administration official said several high-level meetings had been held recently in Washington to assess how the United States would be affected if a less friendly regime came to power in Saudi Arabia.
It is virtually impossible to accurately guage the depth of discontent in a society like Saudi Arabia's, where dissent cannot openly be voiced and people guard their privacy fiercely.
But in Buraida, a hotbed of religious militancy, and even in the poorer neighborhoods of Riyadh, 200 miles to the southeast, what proved notable was the extent to which a number of residents echoed strains of the case against the monarchy advanced by dissidents abroad and militants in this country, many of whom are now in jail.
A significant number spoke also of Saudi Arabia's economic situation and the narrower horizons they now see for themselves and for a country that once seemed blessed with almost limitless wealth.
Saudi Arabia still sits on one-fourth of the world's known oil reserves, and it currently produces eight million barrels of oil a day, more than twice the daily yield of any other country.
But it has had to make amends for years of unrestrained spending, cutting back on the generous subsidies that helped to buy the good will of its citizens and making clear that many of those now entering the job market will have to accept sub-par positions once delegated to foreigners.
Opponents of the Saudi Government, who say the royal family has betrayed its role as custodian of Islam's holiest sites, have also accused its members of having squandered the country's wealth through wastefulness and greed.
And in Buraida, a city of 200,000 where women are seen in public only when shrouded all in black and where the religious police enforce the five-times-daily call to prayer, it was apparent that the attack had found resonance.
"You remember that bomb in Al Khobar?" one young merchant said over tea in the back room of his shop, referring to the car-bomb blast in June that killed 19 American airmen at a base in Dhahran. "I did not like, but only for one reason: it hit only the Americans, when the target should have been the Government itself."
Like the father and three brothers who preceded him to the throne, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia relies on the approval of his country's religious leadership, which in turn acts as protector of the Wahabi Muslim principles on which the kingdom was founded.
From the beginning of his rule, King Abdel Aziz -- the founder of the royal family -- assumed the title of imam, or law giver, and his sons have been bestowed that role by the religious leadership, known as the ulema.
But a minority among the followers of King Abdel Aziz never accepted him as their imam, and they rose against their leader in the Ikhwan rebellion of the late 1920's, which ended only when the King put them down by force.
In weathering conservative challenges since then, the Saudi Government has similarly had to face down religious extremists who do not regard its rule as legitimate.
Many people in Saudi Arabia describe the latest challenge, which began to surface in 1992, after the Persian Gulf war, as amounting to another rebellion, but one reinforced by signs that the Government has lost support from elements of the religious establishment, including militant preachers like Sheik Salman al-Awdah, who preaced regularly at the Buraida mosque.
Along with Sheik Safar al-Hawali and others, Sheik Awdah applied the unyielding Wahabi tenets, based on a literal reading of the Koran, to describe the condut of royal family as secular and corrupt. These clerics accused the Sauds of betraying the laws of Islam, in part by permitting infidel Western troops a presence on the Arabian Peninsula, the site of Islam's two holiest sites.
While the clerics never advocated violence, the Wahabi outlook allows little room for rival ways of thought, even among fellow Sunni Muslims. Saudi experts on radical Islamic movements say these attacks -- recorded on cassette tapes that circulated throughout the kingdom -- have helped to fuel deep antipathy to the Saudi Government.
"To the extremists, to declare the Government as illegitimate makes it an infidel government," said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. "And the moment they declare a government an infidel government, they believe they have the right to fight against it."
Warned to quiet his attacks, Sheik Awdah, instead gathered thousands of followers in the rally here that ended with his arrest and those of Sheik Hawali and at least 400 others around the country. But while both clerics remain in prison, interviews found that support for them remains powerful in Buraida, whose residents proudly describe it as the most conservative place in Saudi Arabia.
Apart from the march two years ago, residents say, the town has demonstrated no outright signs of dissent. But cassettes of Sheik Awdah's sermons still circulate clandestinely, and videotape shot during the demonstration has formed lasting impressions on the minds of American officials whose responsibilities include this country.
Describing scenes that included "at least hundreds of young men running about," one Western diplomat said, "It was all very dramatic, because this is Saudi Arabia, and this never happens."
In the last 15 years, per capita annual income in Saudi Arabia has plunged by about two- thirds, to about $6,700, mostly because of a population boom. That has magnified discontent and given new ammunition to those who accuse the royal family of failing to manage the country's resources wisely.
"The people need to eat," a Saudi in his 20's said in an interview in a poorer quarter of Riyadh, whose residents include Saudis and low-paid foreign workers from Pakistan and India. "And as life has become more difficult, we have begun to believe that someone must bear the blame."
For many in Saudi Arabia, the United States is an easy target. Despite evidence to the contrary, most Saudis remain convinced that the American Government profited from the gulf war at the expense of the Saudi treasury.
And religious conservatives, who contend that the presence of some 5,000 United States servicemen here contravenes the Wahabi interpretation of Islamic law, have condemned what they describe as an unwholesome American influence on the country and its rulers.
Both criticisms have attracted new adherents in the last year, a time when Washington's perceived pro-Israeli bias in Middle East peace talks has angered public opinion across the Arab world.
And in the aftermath of the bombings, both ahve been fanned by Saudi dissidents abroad, including Osama bin Laden, the billionaire exile who in September called on his followers to begin a "holy war" against the United States and its military presence.
"The Americans don't understand that they are not wanted," Khalid bin Abdelrahman el- Fawaz, a close associate of Mr. bin Laden, said in an interview in London. "They only understand the language of violence. It happened in Lebanon: they ran away only after there was major bloodshed. The same thing happened in Somalia. So the Saudi people thought: why don't we give them bloodshed?"
Except in extraordinary circumstances, Muslims are forbidden under Islamic law to kill fellow Muslims, so even Islamic extremists find it far easier to countenance attacks against so-called infidels.
Most American and Saudi experts nevertheless see the bomb attacks of the last year as evidence of opposition to the Saudi Government, whose decision to allow American forces to base themselves in the kingdom to repel Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 found little support within the Saudi population.
But even the most outspoken among the Saudi dissidents in London acknowledge that they have neither the ability nor the intention to challenge the Government with force. And in interviews in Washington and Riyadh, American experts and Western diplomats said they did not believe that the Government faced a near-term threat.
"I don't see any signs that the Al Saud are in any imminent danger whatsoever," a Western diplomat in Riyadh said. "The queston is: over the next 5 to 10 years, will they make the changes they need to keep themselves in power, or will they make fatal choices that will undermine their rule?"
If the nightmare scenario for the West is the collapse of the Saudi Government in an Iranian-style revolution, the consensus among Western analysts is that such an outcome remains extraordinarily unlikely. There is no evidence, the analysts say, of any mass inclination to confront the Government by taking to the streets.
But under King Fahd, who suffered a stroke last year, the Saudi monarchy appears to be treading carefully around public sentiment, perhaps most notably by its refusal this fall to allow the United States to mount its latest round of attacks against Iraq from Saudi bases.
The Saudis have also seemed determined to keep American investigators at arm's length from their investigation of the Dhahran bombing, a stand based either on sovereignty concerns or wariness about allowing outsiders to take stock of their internal difficulties.
A sense of unease also has been apparent in the attention given by Saudi newspapers recently to religious seminars whose consistent theme has been that loyalty to the imam, to the King, is a Muslim virtue. The country's second-ranking religious figure, Sheik Mohammed bin Otheimin, ruled that to criticize the King from within the chamber of the mosque would be to commit an act of heresy.
After bombings that Clinton Administration officials said underscored how much about Saudi Arabia the West still did not know, a puzzle that remains in a society that does not allow dissent is how to weigh the complaints that do surface.
On that subject, a Saudi man who politely turned a visitor away from his office in Buraida stopped first to offer a piece of advice.
"The official point of view," he said, "is that the Americans are our friends -- friends to the gulf in general, and friends to the kingdom. That is the policy of the Government, and if people are asked a question here, that is the way they are expected to answer."