US tightens rules for shore leave in Emirates

US military personnel are being warned to follow strict rules on their behaviour when on shore leave in the UAE.

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US military personnel are being warned to follow strict rules on their behaviour when on shore leave in the UAE after growing reports of rowdy behaviour. US servicemen and women say they must adhere to ever-tightening rules imposed by commanders during rest and relaxation in the country. They include vigilant "buddy" systems, in which peers scrutinise behaviour, and mandatory informational forums led by officers who instruct on the "dos and don'ts" of the UAE before personnel go ashore.

Several military personnel, some of whom who spoke on condition of anonymity, said US shore-leave policies had in general become stricter all over the world. But rules in the UAE were some of the most stringent of any country in which military personnel set foot, they said. Animosity has risen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and US policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Lebanon's civil strife, which are perceived by many in the Gulf as biased.

"In general, it's got more restrictive over the past few years, but that is something that has happened all over the world," said an ensign in the US Navy assigned to a ship in the Gulf. "Obviously it's stricter in Dubai because of the tensions over the war." In the early 1990s, he said, ships would dock at Jebel Ali and release droves of sailors who scrambled for Dubai's souks and restaurants with little interference or instruction from commanders.

Now, however, personnel are constantly warned to be vigilant. Superiors are said to educate sailors and Marines, many of whom are in their early twenties and have never travelled outside the United States before, on the distinct cultural values of the UAE. They are forbidden to wear military dress while on shore and are encouraged not to reveal they are part of the US military. Personnel are also discouraged from congregating in groups of more than five, according to the ensign and several Marines in Abu Dhabi.

Lt Nate Christensen, a public affairs officer at the US Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, confirmed that "due to force protection concerns - regardless of location throughout the world", the navy advised its sailors to remain in small groups while on shore. Overnight stays in Dubai were granted to personnel in ranking positions but generally not to sailors and Marines, he added. The ensign said overnight stays on shore were discouraged, especially for men and women without rank.

Although there have been no official complaints to police about soldiers involved in physical violence, bar managers have reportedly had to break up several fights involving US military personnel. A medical officer from a naval vessel said the vast majority of injuries happened while personnel were on shore leave, mostly broken bones and minor trauma to ligaments and tendons. Asked the main cause of injuries, he said: "Well, it depends on how much the beer is flowing."

Three Marines were convicted by a Dubai court in February of consuming alcohol without a licence and fined Dh1,000 (US$270) and Dh5,000. It was the first time US military personnel had been tried in a GCC court. A US Marine on shore leave from a helicopter support unit attached to the USNS Arctic fell to his death in April from an atrium at a Dubai hotel, allegedly while drunk. The US Navy Fifth Fleet headquarters are in Manama but the most frequently used port for naval vessels in the Gulf is Dubai, followed by Abu Dhabi.

For security reasons, the US Navy does not announce the exact location or time of ships docking in the region. It makes only vague references to ships docking at "a Middle East port". When the three sailors were convicted, Cdr Lydia Robertson, of the Fifth Fleet, said in an interview that soldiers were routinely informed of the area's cultural norms and sensitivities. "We talk with all of our people and tell them that they are representing their country, service and unit and we stress good order and discipline," she said. "That is a concept reinforced to all of our people."