Listen carefully to what an Arab woman living in Washington, Hala Maksoud, said about the scene in "Death of a Princess" that most sent the Saudis up the wall -- the one in which women in limos cruise in the desert looking for men. "Even if it is true for a few," she told Post reporter Myra McPherson, "the way it's presented it's as if it's all true -- it's like saying that 14th Street is all of Washington!"

It was honest, perceptive and apprehensive woman who made that remark. Honest to suggest -- as some Saudis have privately confirmed -- that the cruising scene is not the make-believe slander that Saudis publicly say it is. Perceptive to make the imaginative leap to the 14th Street strip, a place that only a few Washingtonians visit but that represents a phenomenon -- commercial sex across class and racial lines -- that may signify in the American context something resembling what the makers of "Princess" saw in the Saudi scene. Apprehensive -- understandably -- lest innocent Americans viewing the film take the Saudi "14 Street" for all of Saudi Arabia.

Yet it is misleading to believe, or so it seems to me, that at heart the Saudis' complaint is that "Princess" conveys to the West an unfair and inaccurate picture of their country -- as a place typified by cruising and the like. On that literary level, by the way, the Saudis may have it wrong: many Americans may sympathize the more with Saudi Arabia for learning how modernization has put its traditional values under strain. The particulars may be unfamiliar to Americans, but the theme of cultural stress is not.

The real Saudi complaint appears to be that the film will give the West a fair and accurate picture of their country -- as a place whose leadership (the several thousand members of the royal family) is stumbling in its effort to manage change. If at home the very airing before foreign eyes of the royal family's dirty linen is eroding the authority of the House of Saud, then abroad the regime's protests against showings of the film advertise the images of quaking leadership.

Why, after all, did the Saudis execute the princess and her lover in the first place? The experts agree the act reflected more than the routine administration of justice. They start from the premise that somebody had a political interest in demonstratively upholding the traditional Islamic legal code. Just what this interest might have been snapped into sharper focus for the rest of us last November when religious extremists seized the Great Mosque at Mecca, denying in word and deed the royal family's very moral legitimacy.

The leadership is under the prodigious double obligation of managing wisely the economic activity and international associations that allow Saudi Arabia to play its role in the world today, and of doing so without undercutting the values the society holds dear.

All this would be chiefly of interest only to the cultural anthropologists and Arabists among us if the United States, and especially its major allies, had not put themselves in crushing and foolish dependence on the oil and oil revenues of Saudi Arabia and the like states of the Persian Gulf. That dependency denies the West the luxury of regarding Saudi Arabia as just another television background, and turns the show from an entertainment into a unavoidable poltical occasion for calibrating the relationship of two very different societies uneasily reliant upon each other.

The fact is that the Saudi regime the West relies on could be swept away overnight any night and replaced by one that would make the royal family, which many Americans regard as extremely troublesome and ungrateful, look like three-dollar oil.

The issues of "Princess" is not the commonly and nervously discussed question of whether the Saudis may retaliate. (So far, their reaction, to the American showing, has been contained.) Official Saudis are making it a test of friendship for Americans to declare with them that "Saudi Arabia is not Iran." Nonetheless, for Americans the real issue remains the basic stability of the Saudi regime.

The usual amiable cliches about bridging the cultural gap have been put back into circulation by the episode of the film. But they should not blind us to the possibility that deeper understanding may result not in closer ties but in looser ones -- on both sides.

The Saudis will be drawing their own cautions from "Princess" -- and, it seems, viewing it widely themselves, thanks to Betamax. The West should be concluding that it has put far more eggs in the Saudi basket than prudence dictates. If the flap over the film advances that message, it will have been worth its weight in oil.