by Alia P. Ahmed
Every winter the ordeal resumes. Arab royals and their entourages arrive in the deserts of Pakistan, and set themselves upon a small and unassuming migratory bird. Releasing their falcons into the sky, the sheikhs tear through the provinces of Balochistan, Sindh, and Punjab, following the hunt from air-conditioned SUVs. Their prey, the houbara bustard, is shy and reclusive; its beige and white speckled feathers help it blend into arid surroundings. But camouflage alone cannot save it – excessive hunting has decimated its numbers and placed it on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species. And its plight doesn’t end there. The birds are also illegally exported to the Gulf for the purpose of training falcons.
Though hunting the houbara is officially banned in Pakistan, the federal government regularly issues special hunting permits to Arab dignitaries, a practice it has rather blithely admitted to being “a cornerstone of foreign policy.” Such permits usually allow for the deaths of 100 birds within a maximum hunting period of 10 days. In January 2014, however, Saudi prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud embarked on a three-week rampage that slaughtered 2,100 birds in Balochistan.
By March, Saudi Arabia had donated $1.5 billion to Pakistan, which “contributed to a sharp recovery of the Pakistani rupee…it’s strongest rally in 30 years,” according to the country’s oldest English-language daily. The government referred to the grant only as a “gift for the people of Pakistan,” stirring speculation among analysts and the media. In the face of such kind gifts, what were a few feathers?
More recently, the federal government issued a hunting permit to Qatari prince Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani. Al-Thani has longstanding ties with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Not long ago, Al-Thani submitted a letter to Pakistan’s Supreme Court, in regards to a case implicating Sharif and his family in the Panama Papers leak. The letter attested to the business relations between the two families and stated that Sharif’s London properties, which are at the heart of the controversy, were purchased with money from investments Sharif’s father made in a real estate business owned by the Al-Thani family (as opposed to money laundered from Pakistan)..For a government under Sharif, it seems, hunting is as much a “cornerstone of foreign policy” as it is of personal policy.
Post-colonial states have little choice but to rent themselves out to foreign powers. The price of disobedience is high. Defiance and self-determination lead to international isolation and strangulation, as with Iran or Cuba. Still, one should be wiser when choosing a master. “Gifts for the people of Pakistan” come at a high price, too. Saudi-funded madrassahs have injected venom and sectarianism into the body politic. Pakistanis and other South Asians, who essentially comprise the Arab states’ servant class, send remittances back home that are crucial to their economies. But they work in slave-like conditions, their passports confiscated to prevent easy escape. These gifts have cost the country much in terms of human toil and cultural diversity. In their place Pakistan has a few more shopping malls and a lot more abayas.
In exchange for these losses, the people of Pakistan rarely see the benefits. In fact, in Punjab, Houbara hunting hurts the livelihoods of local farmers. The princes’ entourages are huge, often damaging crops in their pursuit of the birds, or else preventing farmers from harvesting. A farmer told the BBC that if a houbara nesting area is found in someone’s field, police will prevent the farmer in question from tending to it until the hunt is over. Nor has this feathered diplomacy brought much by way of amenities to the people of Balochistan, where hunting is also concentrated. It remains Pakistan’s poorest and most neglected province. Instead of schools or hospitals, Arab royalty build stately residences to retire to for the duration of their hunts.
They did, however, build an airport. The small Punjabi city of Rahim Yar Khan, though not a hub for travel, nevertheless boasts a modern and manicured airport built with funds provided by former UAE president Zayed bin Sultan al Nayhan. Originally built for his personal use to connect him to his immense palace in the Cholistan desert just outside the city, the airport was eventually donated to Pakistan. By the 1960s, the Gulf rulers had already extinguished the once-plentiful bustard populations in their own lands, and had to turn elsewhere. Popular Pakistani cultural critic and satirist Nadeem F. Paracha writes,
In the mid-1970s, the desert of Rahim Yar Khan became a favorite hunting ground for rich Arab sheikhs and sultans of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Armed with trained falcons, shotguns, dogs and lots of cash to throw around, the Arab hunters were particularly interested in hunting and eating the houbara bustard. In 1974, the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had began to nurture close ties with oil-rich Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, hoping to obtain petrodollars from friendly sultans and sheikhs that he needed to bolster Pakistan’s economy. One of the many schemes that the Bhutto regime enacted to attract Arab hand-outs was to invite these sultans to hunt the Asian bustard that were abundant in the vast arid lands of Sindh, southern Punjab and Balochistan.
Pakistan’s environmentalists have not been quiet on the matter of the vanishing birds. Theirs is a thankless task. Jaffer Baloch, of the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department, prepared the 2014 report (verified by WWF-Pakistan) detailing the massacre of 2,100 bustards. After the report surfaced, he was transferred to another department. The Supreme Court placed a blanket ban on special permits. However, by January 2016, it succumbed to government petitions claiming the diplomatic importance of the sport and lifted the ban. The report also sparked a tongue-in-cheek change.org petition—because the bustards are hunted in part because of a myth that their meat holds aphrodisiac qualities—that called on Pfizer to donate free Viagra to the 28 sheikhs implicated in the killing spree. It garnered 1,484 signatures.
Every winter, the houbara bustard loyally migrates to Pakistan to meet its end. So, too, does the establishment gravitate towards its Arab overlords. The houbara bustard is the national bird of Balochistan. Fortunately for American diplomacy, the bald eagle is larger than a falcon.
Alia P. Ahmed is a journalist based in Karachi and New York. She recently completed her MFA at Columbia University. Photo of houbara bustard by Shakar S. via Flickr.