When the going gets hot, Kuwaitis grab their skates and head for the ice

When it is 120 degrees in the shade in the city-state of Kuwait - where there is no real shade to speak of - what do Kuwaitis do? They go ice skating, of course.

The Persian Gulf sheikhdom has channeled part of the wealth from its desert oil fields into luxuries that make the smothering heat more bearable. One such luxury is an Olympic-size rink which has become one of Kuwait's major leisure outlets since it opened in 1979.

In keeping with a nation that has the highest yearly per capita income in the world, roughly $25,000, Kuwait has one of the poshest ice rinks in the world. Indeed, it is more like an ice palace than a rink.

The 2,000-seat arena consists of cushy, bright yellow and orange armchairs. Mosaics with Arabic themes decorate the walls of what looks like a massive A-frame more appropriate to Aspen or Stowe than the dusty ''moonscape'' of Kuwait - emphasized all the more by the sands that surround the entertainment facility.

But custom sets the Kuwaiti rink off from its American counterparts, because there are in fact two rinks. In keeping with the Islamic tradition of segregation of the sexes, the Olympic-size rink is for men, while a smaller but equally posh rink caters to women and families.

Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was actually the first to introduce the cold weather sport to the Arabian deserts at its Leisureland complex. It has developed such a following that its first ''ice spectacular'' was held in May, featuring both tots and adults.

Although the rink originally attracted mostly foreign workers and their families, skating has subsequently drawn in the Arabs. One star of the ''Dubai follies'' was Ahmed Obaid, a soldier known at the rink as ''Spider'' because of his long legs.

In May, Bahrain fell in with the fad. But the owners of the Bahraini rink are keeping their options open until ice skating proves its popularity. Half of the day is allotted to roller-skating, and half to the more slippery sport on an adaptable plastic course to which a special fluid is added to create an icy effect.

Skating in Gulf countries is still at the awkward stage, as bumped and bruised kids wobble their way around the rinks. But it is one of the few sports the Gulf Arabs can participate in year-round. The ferocious heat makes soccer, the most popular outdoor sport in the Arabian Peninsula, prohibitive in the summer months. (In past seasons, the state teams have been forced to practice for major matches on other continents.)

The manager of Kuwait's skating rink says an average of 500 children and adults use it daily, moving along to the ululating beat of Arabic music in fancy French leather boots with special English-made blades: white for children, red for women, and bright, royal blue for men.

The Kuwait rink also boasts its own amateur ice hockey team, which practiced for more than a year before taking on competition made up of Swedes who hold lucrative temporary jobs here. (Kuwait depends heavily on foreign labor and expertise.)

A local sports commentator cited the results of the match to prove that ice skating had come to stay in Kuwait: The desert warriors defeated the ice-hardened Scandinavians 4-3.

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