Deferring to Saudis, U.S. won't have holiday show


DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Unless a tour materializes at the last minute, for the first time in a generation there will be no Bob Hope leaning on his golf club, surrounded by leggy showgirls, playing to an audience of cheering, whistling GIs. In fact, it appears unlikely that there will be any kind of United Service Organizations' show, a staple of GI Christmases since World War II.

Some celebrities have offered to be on hand, but it will be only to shake hands and sign autographs. So far, two are scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia during the holidays: "Major Dad" TV star Gerald McRaney and his wife, "Designing Women" actress Delta Burke. Singer LaToya Jackson, sister of Michael, will perform for U.S. service personnel attached to the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Sinai Peninsula, a USO spokesman said, but that is far from the Persian Gulf.

The Pentagon's decision to forgo shows that would bring together large numbers of troops reflects deference to the Saudis -- their conservative country has no movie theaters or concert halls -- as well as security concerns. At this point, those concerns are based more on a fear of terrorist attack than on the threat of Iraqi missiles.

All U.S. soldiers in the gulf area will eat a traditional turkey dinner on Christmas, but any religious services will be low-keyed, unpublicized and closed to the press. Even the singing of Christmas carols, such as "Silent Night" or "O Little Town of Bethlehem," will not be recorded by television news cameras.

No chapels have been set up in rear areas, where large numbers of troops are deployed, although Americans have been meeting regularly on Sundays and Fridays for worship services, usually in a unit's day room or some unused office space.

Saudi Arabia forbids the practice of any religion other than Islam. Technically, even Bibles are forbidden. But in practice, the Saudis are far more tolerant than their constitution would suggest.

By unspoken agreement, U.S. expatriates and other foreigners here are allowed to worship as they please, as long as Christian or Jewish symbols are not displayed for the public to see and services are kept private.

U.S. commanders want to downplay the religious aspects of Christmas for two reasons:

* They do not want to antagonize Saudi cultural sensitivities.

* More important, they are convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would seize on pictures of Americans conducting religious services to inflame the passions of Moslem zealots who already are critical of the presence of "infidel" troops in the land of Islam's holiest sites.

Despite the unusual religious sensitivities -- which apparently will not affect U.S. personnel on nearby ships in international waters -- the Christmas holiday itself is not kept in the closet here.

Most Americans working at the Saudi Aramco Oil Co. in Dhahran have decorated their homes with artificial trees, and shops in Kobar, the closest city, sell Christmas lights and greeting cards. At U.S. military units, soldiers have covered their walls with Christmas stockings, pictures of Santa Claus and cards from home. What is absent is any direct association with Jesus Christ.

The 260,000 U.S. military personnel in the gulf region were briefed about Saudi and Arab culture and lifestyles before leaving the United States and Europe. There appears to be remarkably little grumbling about the restrictions.

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