The hundreds of thousands of American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf this Christmas will have none of the big USO shows that have become traditional for soldiers overseas during the holidays, according to the Defense Department and United Service Organizations. Spokesmen said the policy change was made out of regard for security and the "sensitivities" of the conservative Moslem culture.

"Western-style entertainment, even comedy and music, is not germane to the Saudi society," said Kevin McCarthy, executive producer of the USO's entertainment programs. He said security precautions also tend to prohibit large gatherings of troops, and that "we take our cue from the Defense Department." The USO is a private charity serving the American armed forces worldwide.

"There won't be any actual shows," said Maj. Doug Hart, a spokesman for the Department of Defense. He made no mention of security precautions, but said Saudi Arabia is "another nation whose laws and customs are different. We are guests of their country. We must abide by their rules."

Shows aboard U.S. ships in the gulf, Hart added, are also "not on the agenda at this time" because "it wouldn't exactly be fair to the Army guys sitting out on the desert."

Instead of shows, celebrities such as Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Brooke Shields, Lee Greenwood and even Bob Hope will be limited to "handshake and autograph" meetings with small groups, spokesmen said.

Ward Grant, a spokesman for Bob Hope, said the 87-year-old entertainer, who has wowed American forces abroad at Christmas since 1941 with gala shows including plenty of starlets and irreverent humor, would leave for the Mideast under USO auspices around Dec. 20 "to be with the boys at Christmas, with or without a show. ... Be it a handshake or be it a show, indeed he's planning on being there."

Grant said Hope, who was golfing yesterday and unavailable for comment, had been "planning on going to entertain, but no agenda has been set. He is going, and he will bring with him humor." Last month in California, at dedication ceremonies for the downtown Long Beach-Bob Hope USO, Hope quipped: "How am I going to go without the girls? I'd hate to think I was the only pretty face there."

Jerry Bentley, manager for country singer Lee Greenwood, who has entertained troops every Christmas since he was 17, said the USO hadn't accepted Greenwood's offer to go on a "full tour" to the Mideast this year.

"You hear so many rumors coming back from over there as to what you can do and what you can't do," Bentley said. "I don't even know if his performing 'God Bless the U.S.A.' would be appropriate. It's patriotic. Someone might take offense to that."

When movie star Steve Martin, who was once a stand-up comedian, went on a Saudi tour last month with his wife, actress Victoria Tennant, 500 troops of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division were reportedly disappointed when he told them: "They said they didn't want us to do a show. ... What we're going to do is what they call 'grip and grin.' " A military spokesman said at the time, "I don't think anybody is ready for a USO show right now."

Contacted in New York yesterday, Martin said that when the USO asked him to make the tour "they said 'no show, just handshakes.' " He added that "as far as I can tell, there's a couple of reasons for the change in policy. One is a little nervousness over the Saudis. ... You probably have to stay sensitive to their worries over salaciousness. If you have a female in a bikini, they might object. On the other hand, as my wife said, if an army came to America and put on cockfights and bear-baiting, we might object."

In addition, Martin said, there were "no facilities" to put on a show, and when he met at the beginning of his tour with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf region, the general "said he didn't want to congregate people in one place. He said when he was in Vietnam the shows were all at bases and the guys in the front lines never got to see anything. His objective was to go right to the front, and shake hands and meet the troops. I frankly don't know what the Saudi influence is." Martin worked 12 hours a day for six days, going from one small concentration of troops to the next.

Movie star Ron Silver, president of the Creative Coalition, a 250-member actors' political organization, said yesterday he understands the need "not to wreck this very, very fragile coalition" of Arab nations allied with the United States against Iraq, but that he still considers the Martin incident "censorship. I was bothered by it personally. I felt that if a country was going to accept our young men and women's blood, they're going to have to accept some cultural things that upset them."

The USO's McCarthy said he was negotiating for Christmas tours with Brooke Shields, who was going "alone, just on a handshake visit," and added that "we're working with Bob {Hope} and the Defense Department. We're anticipating the same type of {handshake} activity for that as well."

McCarthy said early this week that he was hoping that some entertainers would be allowed to do "short skits" in isolated locations during their handshake tours. By yesterday, he had upgraded his rhetoric to "will" do short skits, but there was no change in official Defense Department policy yesterday in support of this hope.

Martin said yesterday that it seemed to him feasible to do "something small, in 15 minutes -- a singer with a guitar, a comedian, anything that doesn't need a mike," especially since "there were no Saudis" in the isolated spots he visited. But Hart, the Defense Department spokesman, said that even in isolated areas "we're trying to be very sensitive because there are Saudis who work with and among the American troops. And they are our hosts."

The firm Pentagon policy seems to have originated in early September, when a variety show for American soldiers staged by American expatriates in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia -- featuring a barbershop quartet's rendition of "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad" plus a chorus line of scantily clad women -- was abruptly shut down following complaints from the Saudi government.

Saudi officials had reportedly seen excerpts of the revue on two American networks, CBS and CNN, showing the female dancers' legs from the knee down. Iraqi television then aired portions of the film, criticizing what were deemed the wicked ways of Western infidels in Saudi Arabia. Moslem Arab women are traditionally clothed from head to foot when appearing in public.

Prior to this, in August, McCarthy had enthusiastically gone on record saying that American service personnel in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf would not be forgotten during the holidays. "If the troops are still there, it'll be show time," he had proclaimed. And on Sept. 6 he issued a USO news release stating that Jay Leno, the popular comic and permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," would fly to the Mideast to "perform two concert shows over the Thanksgiving holiday."

Then, quietly, plans changed. Leno's Thanksgiving tour is still on, said a spokesman for the comic, but "he's just going to go over and shake hands and stuff. He was supposed to go over originally and give two very large concert performances; then they {USO officials} informed him that that's sort of a security risk."

Difficulties with Christmas entertainment are not the first problems Americans have encountered in Saudi Arabia. There have been objections to women soldiers driving automobiles, since Saudi women aren't allowed to. Saudis have complained about the little crosses military chaplains wear on their lapels. And it was only recently, according to Hart, that "we have been able to work it out with the Saudis to allow mail in for Christmas cards.

"This whole thing first came up with Rosh Hashana. Troops were able to celebrate the Jewish holidays, as they will celebrate Christmas. It's all being done, although it's contrary to Saudi law. We are attempting to keep them low-key, realizing the Saudi sensitivities."

The USO, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala party in Washington Dec. 6, was founded at the beginning of World War II by a coalition including the YMCA, YWCA, Catholic Community Service, Jewish Welfare Board, Salvation Army and Travelers Aid Society. It was funded then, as today, by private donations. In 1942, $32 million was raised for the USO in a campaign headed by Prescott Bush, the father of President Bush.