Fierce, frightening -- that is surely the way I would have described the Saudi Arabia of my imagining, a sort of cartoonist's nightmare drawn from movie scenes, news photographs of forbidding, alien princes and God knows what all else. The harshness of both the environment and the custom was the totality of the place. But the unimagined country I have just visited for a few days, in the company of The Post's foreign editor, Jim Hoagland, and board Chairman Katharine Graham (we will get around to the interesting questions raised by the indisputable femaleness of two of us in a minute), did not convey this impression of menace at all. What it conveyed instead, repeatedly and poignantly, was a sense of vulnerability.

Aramco, the consortium of oil companies that has run the extracting and refining industry in Saudi Arabia for several decades, is synonymous with riches and power, and a tour of its installations along the Gulf and inland in the eastern province will tell you why in a way the statistics never can. The sheer magnitude of its refinery and port at Ras Tanura, the tank farms, so-called, with their seemingly inexhaustible supply of football-field sized drums containing petroleum products like fuel oil and naphtha and gasoline, the miles upon miles of pipeline -- at some point, viewing all this and considering that it may represent the most valuable piece of real estate in the world, you are struck by how exposed, how undefended it is.

Of course Arramco and the Saudis take a lot of security measures. But finally, these installations so coveted by the powers of the world and so critical to the mean international politics of the day are just -- well -- sitting there above ground, geographically near to a variety of angry, unstable and/or predatory groups and nations. One thinks of how the most powerful leaders in the world -- and the most protected -- are still ultimately vulnerable to the well-planned or luck-hit bullet. So too the mighty Aramco-Saudi complex is ultimately undefended and undefendable against certain kinds of sabotage, seizure of destruction, simply by virtue of being where and what it is.

In some way this paradox of vulnerability in strength seemed to repeat itself throughout the aspects of Saudi life we saw. By vulnerability I don't mean weakness, with which it should not be confused, but rather exposure to danger and susceptibility to accident and change and uncontrollable forces loose in the world. Saudi life has been transformed by a source of wealth that is in its way unrelated to the institutions or culture or labors of the country and its people. How can this geologic gift be incorporated into that life without bringing about its disintegration.

At the present time the oil and refining complexes are artificial, largely foreign enclaves, imported into and superimposed upon the country and kept apart from its internal life. This is literally true: the workers tend to be foreigners -- Koreans and Fillipinos make up a big contingent -- and they are likely to live in camp-like arrangements of all-male dormatories, while the managers and bosses live in bungalow compounds that look like transposed Arizona retirement villages.

Can the Saudis, as they now hope, contrive to train a quarter of a million of their own people into the work force over the coming five years or so? Can they integrate their wealth into their national life? Or will they be destroyed by it -- either culturally or as a consequence of their people's envy and aggression?

My impression, based on our talks with a variety of ministers, rulers and technocrats, was that this perception of their condition is at the center of the Saudi's every policy move and concern. The men we talked to were subtle, extremely intelligent and, it seemed to me, almost compulsively concerned with strategic -- as distinct from minute-by-minute or ad hoc -- consideration. It is this contant awareness of danger and of the requirements of prudence in defending against it or (better) warding it off, that seems to inspire their legendary caution, their continuous moves to placate enemies and unknown quantities among nations, their despair over Washington's apparent indifference to their security anxieties and their passion for a resolution of the Palestinian question that threatens to reignite the whole area in war.

This continuing paradox of vulnerability in the midst of power was summed up and made vivid for me one night in the figure of Prince Abdullah, the royal brother who runs the security forces known as the National Guard. We sat with him through a majlis, or public audience, and a dinner attended by maybe a hundred Bedouins and others, who -- in the tradition -- had simply "dropped in" to visit or honor or importune him. And there sat the courtly and powerful prince, attended by guards and waiters bearing gold daggers and holstered revolvers -- and yet at the mercy of the benign intentions of the dozens of unknown visitors who had chosen to throng in upon him that night.

After vulnerability, I would put sensitivity as a prevailing characteristic. No, call that supersensitivity. There were two nonvariables in our encounters with the Saudis and these were the strongest elements in our every conversation. The first was a profoundly decorous and generous expression of hospitality -- graceful, friendly and clearly, a deeply felt and intrinsic part of the culture -- a very moving thing. Second there was -- of equal intensity -- a link of volcanic resentment, even rage, at what is regarded as a malevolent misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the Saudis' own situation and purposes.

The "Death of a Princess" was just a part of it. Do we say they are weak and corrupt and internally divided (that is, the royal family) because we are eager for their extinction because we have an interest in their overthrow? Why do we tell these lies? Is it because the Zionist lobby has so directed? Why is the racist caricature of the Arab the last such caricature permitted in Maerican popular-cultural life? What is it we mean, anyway, with all this talk of democraticizing the kingdom? What could be more democratic than the majlis, after all? Is not democracy simply about relating the will of the people to the decisions of the rulers -- as distinct from being about "institutions"? No, the Mecca attack did not reveal some latent political opposition -- and why do Americans keep wondering if it did? Who is behind all this? Explain it . . . Please, madame, will you explain it?

I am not fool enough to believe that I could separate out in all this that which was just politically defensive and diversionary from that which represented true bafflement and anger. But I am certain that a large component of the latter was there. These people, feeling threatened and besieged, perceive, as all politicians rightly do, that the broadcasting of the danger increases the danger and that the perception of weakness or trouble can make it worse. They also see, rightly, how enormous is the gulf between the life they have forged into the present kingddom and the kind ofuture they need to build in order to survive. So here we come to all those cultural misunderstandings and perplexities that, I am convinced, lie at the heart of the Saudi-Western connection.

From our point of view, much of the initial strangeness seemed superficial and to vanish like a burnt-off morning fog. It is pretty wild to be met at Dhahran by men in the traditional Saudi dress and escorted to a hotel where the in-house television was playing Donnie and Marie Osmond reruns. But that kind of little surface irony goes quickly . . . In fact the men's attire seemed unexceptional and unexotic in no time at all. But the nature of the place remained utterly incomprehensible in certain features to me, and I will only mention the one I know best and felt most keenly.

I have alluded to our being invited by one of the royal princes to a (naturally, all male) majlis and a dinner feast at his palace. Others recceived us in their offices, easily, which was extraordinary enough. But for Prince Abdullah to have seated a female on either side of him at this banquet (we were offered chairs but joined our host and the other guests on the floor) and for him to have conducted rapt conservation with us throughout the meal in the face of the collective incredulous stare of all those Bedouin dinner guests arrayed down the length of each side of the great hall -- now that was something. I know that foreign women are treated differently from the home-grown kind, but even so we both felt that the Saudis went above and beyond the call of duty in being brave and gracious about the fact of our womanhood.

But while that tells you something about their sense of hospitality and their individual willingness to extend themselves, it does not touch on the utter strangeness for an American woman of that scene itself. After a couple of days what you suddenly realize is this: that in its public life it's not just that women, the rare few you see, are veiled. It's more importantly that this is a public world without women. In Riyadh, you will see no woman in the restaurant, in the government office building, in the hotel lobby, in the lounge. You will see no women as hotel maids or as secretaries or as casual strollers-by. You will see no women in the heavy auto traffic, no women's pictures in the newspapers or in depiction on the walls. It's as if there are none.When we were at the Petroleum Univeristy in the eastern province, a beautiful new complex of buildings and equipment, we were told that women had briefly served as librarians but pressure had arisen to remove them from their public place and it was done.

True, we did not go to the markets or other special places where we were told women did congregate somehow, but that would not have altered the basic fact of the virtually woman-less nature of the country's public life. As women are not being educated (schools for them started only in the early 1960s), one can presume these things, in time and with much anguish, will change. But for the moment I would take this as a good measure of the utter and near-to-unbridgeable chasm between the Saudi value system and that of so much of the rest of the world.

What makes this especially significant to me is yet a third and final perception of the place. I found its own acquisition and adaptation of American cultural artifacts and ways garish and grating and doomed in some historically inevitable way. This stuff is tacky and it is especially tacky in relation to the sophisticated and integrated and elegant features of the Saudi culture itself. What I am saying is that I think in some way the Saudis are going to have to 1) modernize to survive and 2) modernize in a manner that grows out of and is consistent with their own -- not our -- tradition. You don't have to be a Saudi to be prudent enough to wonder if that can be done. It's yet another part of their pervasively vulnerable condition of life.