Iraq kidnapping disrupts Gulf ‘sport of kings’
DOHA - Every year the houbara bustard, a rare desert bird whose meat is prized by Arab sheikhs as an aphrodisiac, migrates from Central Asia to the far reaches of Iraq and Pakistan in search of a mild climate and a place to breed.
Its arrival sets off another migration as scores of wealthy Gulf Arabs descend on Iraq to hunt the bird with trained falcons through the winter months.
But the kidnapping of 26 Qataris, including members of the country’s royal family, while they were hunting in the Iraqi desert in December, has highlighted the risks of pursuing the “sport of kings” at a time of heightened regional turmoil.
No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, which happened in a region dominated by Shia militias but it is clear that the immense wealth of Qatar and the Doha government’s successes in freeing political prisoners in war zones have made its citizens prey to those seeking to raise money or exploit the Gulf state’s diplomatic clout.
“The kidnapping of the Qatari hunters dealt a painful blow to the reputation of all the southern areas of Iraq,” said Abdul Rahman Hammoud, chief of the Iraqi Hunters Association in Samawah, where the Qataris were kidnapped.
“We are a tribal community and Gulf hunters are our guests. After the abduction, not a single hunter from the Gulf is coming to Iraq anymore, fearing from being kidnapped. It will take a long time to repair the damage and convince Gulf hunters to resume their Iraq trips.”
It is perhaps the world’s most elaborate blood sport — cargo planes fly tents, luxury jeeps and falcons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to custom-built desert airstrips.
Mega-rich owners often keep their falcons in vast air-conditioned rooms and free-flying aviaries. They often use helium-filled balloons and drones to train the birds at higher altitudes.
Local communities can benefit from the hobby, which for decades has seen Arab elites channel cash — via hunting permit fees and jobs — into remote corners of the Middle East and beyond.
To curry favour with local communities whose land they descend upon to pursue prey, Arab hunters have built roads, schools and mosques in such places as Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Afghanistan’s Helmand. Residents also benefit from the international-standard airstrips that can spring up. New four-wheel-drive vehicles brought in for the hunting season are sometimes left behind as gifts for local leaders.
Critics, though, say hunting with falcons, a practice Arab nomads used to survive in the desert, is today a reckless hobby that threatens the houbara, a dwindling species, and funnels money into areas controlled by militias.
The tradition of falconry is thought to date back thousands of years in the Middle East, and for centuries, nomadic hunters relied on falcons but rapid urbanisation and population growth, fuelled by the discovery of oil, swallowed the desert breeding grounds and habitats of falcons and their prey.
In the 1960s, falconers began to extend their hunting grounds into Iran, Iraq and Pakistan as well as Azerbaijan, Mauritania and Morocco to hunt in areas that cover thousands of square kilometres.
“It is dangerous,” said Mohammed al-Khater, a student at Qatar University who trains and breeds falcons. “The hunters fly into hotspots because it’s where you find the most prey. It’s a risk — but then, it’s their passion.”
The hunts have proved divisive.
The global houbara population is estimated at 79,000-97,000, according to BirdLife International, which lists the bird as “vulnerable”. It says the population has declined by one-third or more over the last 20 years due to hunting and habitat loss.
A 2015 ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court banning hunting of the houbara — after complaints from conservationists that the bird was at risk of extinction — was overturned in January when the government argued it damaged relations with Gulf states, key investors in the country.
A senior Saudi prince and his entourage killed 2,100 houbara during a 21-day hunt in 2014, according to an official report leaked to Pakistani news media.
Hunters say they breed houbara to replace those they kill and complain that the royal visits are being unnecessarily politicised.
Farooq Al-Elji, a falconer who works for the Al Gannas Society, a Qatari association of hunters, defended the practice.
“These people are falconers, you cannot take that away from them. Even if you take the trips away, it is in their personality. Every human emotion is connected to being a falconer. It’s very deep-rooted,” he said.
“It’s a traditional trip. They like to maintain it to recapture the mood of being a survivor in the desert. That’s the beauty of it — it’s a wonderful vacation for them.”
But the vacation is over for now, at least in Iraq.
In the wake of the kidnappings, Colonel Mahmoud Abbas at Iraq’s Interior Ministry said Gulf citizens would no longer be able to secure visas “until further notice”.