The Arabs have engaged in falconry for over 2,000 years and the skills involved in the sport have been passed down through the generations.
Falconry depends on patience and partnership between bird and handler: the bird demonstrates trust and obedience; the handler shows friendship and compassion.
Peregrine and Lanner falcons are the preferred breeds for training.
In his book Falconry: Our Arab Heritage, HH the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan describes the main methods of capturing the birds. In the first, the hunter conceals himself beneath branches in a pit in the ground. He releases a pigeon with a string attached to its leg from the pit, to act as a lure. When the falcon seizes its prey, the hunter carefully winds in the string until the bird is within his reach. An alternative means of capture is netting. Once again, a pigeon is used as bait, being released under a net when a falcon is nearby. In its rush to attack the pigeon, the falcon becomes entangled in the net. The hunter gently removes and tethers it. The bird is then handed over to a falconer to start its training.
UAE falconers have developed their own breeding techniques which enthusiasts of the sport rate as the best in the world. One of the largest global projects relating to the breeding and preservation of falcons was launched in Al Ain in 1996.
The Bedouin have been breeding saluki dogs for thousands of years. The name derives from the city of Saluk, in the Hadhramaut area of Yemen. These desert hounds are known for their exceptional stamina – salukis can run for long distances and at great speed – as well as for their intelligence and loyalty. These qualities make them highly prized by all who own them.
The Arabian Saluki Centre provides excellent facilities and professional advice on breeding, behaviour, exercise regimes, diet and general health.
In the UAE, racing salukis is as popular as greyhound racing in other parts of the world.
Originally camel racing was only the sport of the Bedouin, but it has grown in popularity. The racing season between early October and mid-April is now eagerly anticipated by a growing number of enthusiasts, especially since entrance to racetracks is free to all.
Races were originally held in an informal setting, at weddings or festivals, but now there are 15 custom-built racetracks in the UAE. Sweihan Racetrack (130 km from Abu Dhabi) and Al Ain Racetrack (approximately 25 km from Al Ain) are two of the most popular places to enjoy this spectacular sport. Local tour operators and hotels can provide information about the racing schedule.
Camel racing is now a major industry employing some 9,000 employees, tending over 14,000 racing camels. The formation of the Camel Racing Association has resulted in the highest standards of animal welfare and scrupulous ethics that have become the benchmark for other countries. The use of child jockeys was banned some years ago; now riders have to be at least 16 years old and weigh no less than 45 kilos. However, the use of remote-controlled robots as jockeys is very popular.
The three main breeds of racing camel are al mahaliyat, a brown breed, indigenous to the UAE; al sudaniyat, a large, white Sudanese camel and al muhajanat, a cross-breed of the two. Racing camels are usually the products of careful selective breeding and can attain the value and prestige of racehorses. Although betting is illegal, winning jockeys receive expensive prizes, such as luxury cars. The final race of the season is held at Al Wathba and attracts entrants from all over the world.
Thoroughbred racing camels begin training when they are about two years old and learn to obey basic commands given by the jockey. A two-kilometre gallop is used to identify potential champions and those selected=”true”=”true”=”true” are groomed for a future on the track. Traditionally, race camels are fed on dates, honey, alfalfa, milk and grain.
The tradition of dhow building in the UAE is still thriving and although the enormous white sails have been replaced by diesel engines, master boatbuilders still apply the skills developed over centuries to fashion the familiar curved wooden shape. Originally used as trading vessels, and as an essential part of the pearl-diving industry, dhows are still employed for transporting cargo but are also used to satisfy the popular interest in dhow racing.
The season starts in September, with 12-man teams of UAE nationals competing in a tournament spread over nine months for the opportunity of winning very lucrative prizes and, equally importantly, the huge honour of upholding an ancient tradition. The final and most prestigious race of the season is from Sir Bu Na’air Island to Dubai, a distance of 54 nautical miles, over a route taken by the early pearling dhows when each captain raced to be the first back to port and, perhaps, get the best price for his pearls. Whereas racing used to be undertaken only by men with a seafaring background, today more and more young people are showing interest in it as a sport to rival yachting.
Unlike yacht racing, where skippers manoeuvre their boats into the most favourable positions on the starting line, dhow crews wait in line for the signal then, using strength, technique and traditional block and tackle, they hoist the huge boom that carries the sail.
‘Dhow’ is not an Arabic word but was adapted by the British from the Persian word ‘dawh’, meaning sailing vessel. The dhow is distinguished from other boats by its triangular sail, known as a lateen. Teak is still the mandatory timber, though nowadays it is sometimes supplemented by fibreglass and a steel framework. The wood may be varnished but not painted, in deference to the tradition of leaving the hull above the waterline untreated and painting the part below with lime, as a deterrent to barnacles and other growth.
An excellent place to witness the age-old craft of dhow building is at the Al-Bateen boatyard in Abu Dhabi, where hand tools and the knowledge and skill of the shipwright alone are relied upon to produce the UAE’s best racing dhows without recourse to plans or drawings.