Saudi officials, walking the delicate line between their friendship with the United States and domestic unease over U.S. troops stationed on their soil, said Sunday they would not allow troops based in their nation to launch attacks on Arabs or Muslims.

Yet the announcements, like many of the political decisions made by the Saudi royal family, left open the possibility of compromise.

At a news conference, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, brother of King Fahd and the nation's interior minister, showed the calm that distinguishes the dynasty that has survived more than 250 years of tribal skirmishing, foreign invasions and, more recently, the unwelcome seductions of the modern world.

Speaking to an audience of robed dignitaries and meek local journalists, he declared that Saudi Arabia was cooperating fully with the international community in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Yet he deftly soothed the sensibilities of his Islamic populace by vowing to never join a military assault against fellow Muslims.

That carefully worded decision, designed for domestic consumption and announced earlier by the Saudi defense minister, would seem to dash U.S. hopes of using Saudi air bases to mount retaliatory strikes on bin Laden and his protectors in Afghanistan.

The decision, however, actually left the door open for Washington to use key air traffic control facilities to launch attacks from other bases in the Persian Gulf region.

"We will deal with all issues," Nayef said, "according to the interests of the kingdom."

If the prince's news conference recalled the sort of bravado that helped the House of Saud to forge a new nation from the region's warring tribes, few political insiders in Saudi Arabia are buying it.

Behind the seemingly unassailable political power of the Saudi monarchy, analysts say, lies a dread of the possible fallout from the terrorist attacks on New York and suburban Washington.

The fact that many of the suicide terrorists who rammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 appear to come from Saudi Arabia has revealed a well of discontent and Muslim militancy in the kingdom, experts say.

The exiled Saudi dissident bin Laden, whom the United States accuses of masterminding the attacks, has made little secret of his hatred for the Saudi royal family because of its close ties to the U.S. He was stripped of his Saudi citizenship for fiercely opposing the deployment of Western troops in Saudi Arabia during the gulf war.

"When those buildings came down in America, we saw it as an attack on us," said a mid-level Saudi government official who asked not to be named. "We are still in a state of shock."

A Western diplomat was even more blunt.

"This is the biggest crisis the Saudi leadership has faced in a long time," he said. "They're just sort of numb, going through the motions until they can devise a response."

Conservative Saudi Arabia, the world largest oil producer and the custodian of Islam's holiest shrines, is no stranger to religious militancy. The country is ruled by a strict Sunni Muslim sect--women are required to cover up and are prohibited from driving, while satellite dishes are technically illegal--and extremists have long objected to the royal family's economic and political links to the West and particularly the United States.

Unlike the poverty that has spawned Islamic extremism in other countries, Saudi Arabia's oil wealth, and its accompanying influx of Western influences, has triggered religious tensions there. In 1979, radicals seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca, provoking a bloody clash with government troops that left more than 250 people dead.

More recently, the Saudi government's decision to allow foreign troops on its soil during and after the 1991 gulf war sparked fundamentalist bombings in 1995 and 1996 that killed U.S. military personnel. About 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the country.

Expert at both co-opting and sometimes ruthlessly suppressing its domestic enemies, the Saudi government has been caught off guard by the ferocity of the attacks against the U.S. and by the alleged involvement of bin Laden, analysts say.

"There was a perception in the kingdom that the monarchy had things under control in recent years," said Jamal Kashoggi, deputy editor of Arab News, an English-language daily in Jeddah. "Now they're worrying again about bin Laden's domestic popularity and his local network."

Indeed, a degree of admiration for the accused terrorist is expressed commonly, if discreetly, on the streets of Riyadh today.

"People are sad about America, but America has committed many crimes against Muslims," an electronics shop owner said, citing a widely perceived U.S. bias toward Israel in the Middle East conflict.

"Bin Laden's methods are too harsh," the man said, "but at least he lives simply, by his beliefs. Our leaders live in so many palaces."

Lavish living has increased the Saudi leadership's sense of vulnerability, political analysts agree, especially because the oil-boom years are long gone and an economic downturn is beginning to bite the population as never before.

An expanding population and reduced petroleum revenues have decreased per capita income in the desert kingdom by almost half over the past 25 years, to about $10,000 a year.

Some experts predict Saudi Arabia's rulers, a tough dynasty that rose from a village oasis in the 18th Century to conquer the entire Arabian Peninsula by the 1930s, may become more conservative in order to placate growing fundamentalism.

"They might have to because the stakes are so high," said Joe Kechichian, a political expert on Saudi Arabia and fellow at the University of California at Los Angeles. "They have reason to be nervous, and they're walking a tightrope like few other Arab nations in the world."