THE United States military has made one of its most important decisions concerning its troop presence in the Gulf - where to give the men their rest and relaxation. The intent, at present, is to split the vacationing soldiers between three centers in the region, say US Army officials in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The bulk of the US soldiers are to be divided between Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf linked by a causeway to the mainland of Saudi Arabia. Both are known for liberal attitudes toward visitors and the availability of alcohol and pork products banned in nearby countries.
In addition, US forces expect to charter three cruise ships. The liners will function as floating hotels-disco palaces, with live entertainment provided both by small bands and well-known stars. Each liner will serve 1,000 men and women.
For security reasons, it is not being made said if the ships will be offshore or berthed in Dubai and Bahrain. Nor is it yet known if existing liner crews or military personnel will staff the ships, which are expected to be in place for the Christmas season.
US Army officials say they hope each member of the forces will qualify for rest and recreation after two months of active duty. The decision to keep troops in the region rather than fly them home or to Europe is aimed at keeping them ready and ``in the theater,'' an official says.
Entertainment has already proved to be a prickly issue for the US forces and Saudi hosts. The Saudis last week notified Washington they would not provide visas for Bob Hope or actress Brooke Shields. Both stars were scheduled for ``handshake tours.'' Concerns over a lack of security had led US military officials to rule out larger-scale, ``Vietnam-style'' appearances.
The Saudi decision has been greeted with incredulity in US military circles. ``You can't ban Bob Hope. He's a national institution,'' says a chagrined US official in the region. He and others still hope the decision may be reversed.
Even with hotel ships, the two centers of Bahrain and Dubai are expected to absorb many of the relxing service personnel. With US forces expected to reach 430,000 early next year, even a fraction of this number could have a heavy impact on both areas. US service personnel are already quite conspicuous in the cities.
For the Arab hosts, the art of this exercise will be to enable US military personnel to enjoy themselves while not arousing criticism from local Islamic groups. Quite aside from such concerns, the presence of US personnel has heartened Dubai and Bahraini businessmen, whose confidence dipped following the August invasion of Kuwait. The arrival of US troops has sent revenues soaring for shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, and taxi drivers. Many service personnel are already driving to Bahrain from Saudi Arabia for a few hours off.
Duke Meeks from Oklahoma, who arrived in Dubai a month ago to manage a bar catering to US personnel, says he thinks special centers and hotels will be turned into receiving centers and military clubs for US forces. ``They want to be by themselves, and not have to worry about their language - really relax,'' Mr. Meeks says.
Military officials say they do not foresee the kind of drug problems experienced in Vietnam.
Although Pakistan, one of the world's largest hashish and heroin producers, is only 40 minutes flying time from the Gulf, these officials say they are confident that random drug testing has eliminated most of that problem.
There are also several mechanisms in place to ensure orderly behavior on vacation. Special shore patrols in civilian clothes are already in Dubai. The US Navy runs a ``buddy system'' where Marines are allowed out only in pairs. Each is responsible for the other's behavior.
So far, local officials say US behavior has been exemplary. The only problem that has emerged so far has been an occasional bar brawl between different elements of the multinational force, local residents say.