The Gulf royals love to chase the houbara bustard in their SUVs. And this year, all eyes are on MBS, who has been invited to the expedition.
The official hunting season of the houbara bustard in Pakistan is on. Gulf royalty – emirs and princes - and their wealthy friends are jetting off to areas in Pakistan where the rare bird flies in to escape the frigid winters of Central Asia.
Here, the VVIPs are quietly being received by civil and military officials, and hosted by local landlords and tribal leaders – away from the glare of the media.
Hence, the private royal visits only occasionally make headlines.
On Dec 20, an Emirati prince reportedly arrived for the season with his cohort in the southwestern Chagai district, close to the border with Iran. Another UAE-based royal is camped out in the desert of the southeastern Tharparkar district, according to the local media.
Bhagwandas, a veteran journalist who has extensively reported on houbara bustard hunting, recently broke the news that Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has also been extended an invitation for houbara bustard hunting. This may be his first time arriving in Pakistan on a private hunting expedition.
“The hunting season is from November to January. He may come this month or the next,” Bhagwandas tells TRT World.
“Everyone knows [down to the district administration] because they have to make arrangements,” he says, noting that security is provided by paramilitary forces, police, as well as private security guards of the royals.
Yet, the authorities remain tight-lipped about the arrival of royal visitors for the hunting season.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) cites the houbara bustard as threatened with extinction. It is also protected under various international wildlife conventions that Pakistan is a signatory of.
Mohammad Saleem, a native of Khanewal from central Punjab, remembers the time when he used to be part of the entourage of a “Dubai sheikh” visiting Pakistan for hunting the houbara. He says his employer would arrive in Karachi on a private jet, stay for a brief layover in one of his privately-owned bungalows and zip to the barren northeastern desert of the Tharparkar district.
“I used to be one of his drivers. We would be fifteen to twenty people in four to six cars,” he says. Their Sports Utility Vans would be stuffed to the hilt with tents, petrol, rifles, live goats for food and other supplies – enough to last them a month or so in the barren terrain – should they decide to stay on for hunting deer and partridges.
Upon arrival, the local landlords would welcome them and offer local guides, security and cooks as a token of hospitality. The party would set up camp in the desert for at least the next ten days.
The singular weapon the sheikh brought with him to hunt the houbara were his prized falcons.
Saleem describes how the sheikh would lift the leather blinders from the eyes of the falcon when he spotted a houbara, often through his high-powered binoculars. The falcon would immediately take off in hot pursuit of the houbara, with half dozen SUVs racing behind to catch up.
Once downed, the sheikh would retrieve the bird from the falcon’s grip and take it away. Saleem says he does not know what the sheikh did to the bird after that. But preying upon the bird is prized for a number of reasons: it’s an ancient Arab sport borne out of traditional hunting techniques, and its meat is believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
“The money was good,” Saleem says, adding that he would make between $186 to $311 (Rs30,000-Rs50,000), depending on the duration of the hunt, which would supplement his monthly income of $93 (Rs15,000) at the time.
The first Gulf royals arrived in Pakistan for houbara bustard hunting in the 1960s.
Over the years, Gulf countries tightened their wildlife protection laws to arrest the decline of the houbara population, and Pakistan began receiving more permit requests from the region.
Pakistan also banned the hunting of the houbara bustard under various provincial laws in the 1970s. While it became illegal for locals to hunt the bird, the government was able to make exceptions for Arab dignitaries by exploiting some legal loopholes.
Each year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – not the Ministry of Climate Change mandated with the protection of wildlife - issues special permits to Arab dignitaries for the three-month hunting season beginning November. Each permit holder is assigned several districts and is required to pay $100,000, with an additional $1,000 for bringing in a falcon. The hunt is allowed for a period of 10 days, with a bag limit of 100 birds.
“Pakistani officials, both civilian and military… have used the licenses to cultivate personal ties with prominent Gulf Arabs,” says Arif Rafiq, a non-resident fellow of the Middle East Institute. “There’s also a rent-seeking dimension. Gulf Arab notables have gifted luxury items to individuals in Pakistan. And they have funded the construction of infrastructure in far-flung areas close to where the Houbara bustards have been hunted.”
Subuk Hasnain, a journalist who visited Washuk in southwestern Balochistan province, the first hunting ground for the Abu Dhabi royalty in Pakistan, while reporting for a local news magazine in 2016, also notes how locals were grateful that the Arab sheikhs gave them “money, cars, hospitals, water pumps and mosques.”
“In some areas, I sensed grievances for not getting their fair share,” she says. “There was a situation near the Thal desert in Mankera [in central Punjab] when the Qataris drove over chickpea fields. That led to protests in the area where farmers asked for compensation.”
The Pakistan Army appears to be at the forefront of the houbara’s conservation efforts so that royal hunters may be facilitated. The Houbara Foundation International Pakistan, mostly run by retired army officers, works closely with the UAE-based International Fund for Houbara Conservation to breed the houbaras in captivity. This year alone, more than 3,000 captive-bred houbaras were released in the Cholistan desert – a favorite hunting ground of the Emiratis. The Pakistan Army also routinely carries out aerial seeding of the area to restore natural habitat and encourage breeding of the houbaras.
Pakistan’s hunting diplomacy has not been without controversies, though.
In 2014, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk province, Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who frequently hunts in the Balochistan province, reportedly killed almost 2,000 birds over a 21-day period in violation of his permit terms. Last year, he also did not pay his hunting license fee. Yet, he is expected to be back for hunting this year after a license was issued in his name by the foreign ministry.
In 2015, the Supreme Court of Pakistan imposed a ban on houbara bustard hunting citing its status as a protected animal. The ruling was overturned four months later on an appeal of the provincial governments, which argued that the hunts were an important foreign policy tool.
Even Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his time as opposition leader, condemned the then-Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government - known to be close to Qatari royals - for issuing hunting permits to foreigners on several occasions. His provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa at the time banned the hunting of the bird, while he publicly promised to end the practice if he came to power.
Not only does the practice continue unabated under his rule; houbara bustard hunting has taken on a new significance for Pakistan in light of recent geopolitical developments.
Ties between Pakistan and the Saudi Arabia-UAE bloc are at an all-time low following a series of diplomatic steps taken by the Pakistani government.
First, it was Pakistan’s backing of a Turkey-led forward bloc within the Organization of Islamic Countries that is traditionally led by the Saudis. Then, it was Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Kasuri’s diatribe against Saudi Arabia for lack of support over Kashmir and its growing ties with India.
The repercussions have been punishing for Pakistan. Saudi Arabia refused to rollover a $3 billion loan, leading Pakistan to turn to China for a bail-out amid spiraling twin deficits. The UAE’s suspension of work visas to Pakistanis is also believed to be retributive, although the Emirati government cites security as the reason.
This month, however, there have been piecemeal efforts undertaken by both sides to normalise relations. Saudi ministers have made contacts with the Pakistan civil and military leadership. And Pakistan's foreign minister recently concluded his two-day visit to the UAE on an amicable note.
The houbara bustard hunting permits to Gulf royals, particularly to MBS, may then be a useful ploy in Pakistan’s diplomatic toolkit.