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Falconry Tradition in the United Arab Emirates Essay

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Updated: May 29th, 2020


The quantities of intangible cultural elements and forms that are mutual and shared by a wide variety of national communities are diverse (Mazrouei, 2010, p. 1). Many communities in the past found and continue to find themselves sharing similar cultural forms with their neighbors as well as with others miles away. History informs that there were many human processes and forces that justify the shared cultural unities including independent inventions, parallel inventions and evolution, and psychic unity of humanity (Khalaf, 2009, p. 308).

Falconry is practiced in more than sixty countries globally. The universality, principles, the craving, the art of practice, significances, depictions and morals of falconry is similar among the practitioners in all the countries albeit with negligible differences. There have been assertions by different schools of thought that falconry emerged as a need for survival in early ages while others argue that falconry emerged as a form of leisure. This paper seeks to explore the diverse aspects of falconry to establish if falconry in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a true tradition or it was invented.

History of Falconry

The sport of hawking commonly referred to as falconry gained extensive reputation and undeniable sovereignty as a noble leisure activity during the middle ages in Western Europe. The chronological and geographical origin of falconry is shrouded in darkness as it has not been fully documented. However, there is literary evidence that seems to place the earliest existence of falconry in the Middle and Far East. These regions are observed to have enjoyed the services of the proud birds of prey (Epstein, 1943, p. 497). Falconry was eventually transmitted to other regions from the East through Islamic civilization by falconers such as Frederick II.

The art of falconry may have been practiced in early ages but there is historical evidence that it was known to the Egyptians in the XVIII era between 1580 and 1350 BC. Wen Wang of the kingdom of Ch’u is said to have used falcons in his hunting escapades between 689 and 677 BC. The popularity of falconry in China rose during the Han dynasty between 206 BC and 220 AD. The first formal report of falconry in Japan is documented in Nihon Shoki which, is an essential chronicle of the history of Japan. A bird (falcon) captured in modern Korea was presented to the emperor and was informed that it could be trained for hunting. This means that falconry was probably practiced in Korea before spreading to Japan (Epstein, 1943, p. 500).

In Persia, falconry was also practiced even before 480 AD (Epstein, 1943, p. 500). The Arabs learnt the art of falconry from the Persian neighbors. This assertion is reinforced by the poem of the Arab Abu Du’AD AL-IYAI (480-550 AD). The falcon is referred in Persian as bazi meaning that the Arabs learnt from the Persians as they did not have a word of their own. This implied that by the 5th century, Arabia had learnt the art of falconry albeit from Persians. Aristotle (384-322 BC) in the History of Animals denotes the use of falcons to aid men in hunting in the Arab region particularly in Cedropolis (Epstein, 1943, p. 501). He indicates that men would beat the reeds to frighten the birds out. The falcons forced the birds back into the reeds.

These men would easily locate and hit the birds with sticks. In Amphipolis, children would go hunting for birds in the company of hawks. In fact, children would call the hawks by name whenever they found birds. The hawks would frighten the birds into the undergrowth. Children would then easily reach the birds by hitting them with sticks and capturing them. It is also indicated in the Marvelous Tales written in 260 BC (written ca. 260 BC) that the hawks would grab the birds in the air and throw them to the hunting children (Epstein, 1943, p. 501).

In Germany, hawking was dated as early as the 6th century. The Germanic tribes that practiced falconry overran the West. The evidence of falconry is found in the Germanic early laws. The conditions given for falconry in these laws indicate that the practice took its rightful place both as a leisure activity for the advantaged as well as a means of livelihood for the less privileged. These laws are contained in the Salic Laws dated 500AD. The fines imposed on stealing hawks varied. The highest fine was imposed on those who stole trained hawks from inside the owner’s compound. Since sparrow-hawks do not make good hunters, the fine imposed on stealing a sparrow-hawk was relatively low as they were not held in high esteem. This is a clear indication that falcons were a fundamental part of the early German’s way of life ((Epstein, 1943, p. 507).

Falconry in the UAE

In early times, falconry in the UAE was meant for survival. The falconers would tame and train falcons to perform hunting activities. The community living in the region had not developed hunting tools that would enable them to pursue animals and birds with ease. As an alternative, the communities in the region opted to capture and train falcons to hunt on their behalf. The region is generally arid and capturing wild animals proved difficult given the rough desert terrain.

Epstein (1943) indicates that the Arab Bedouins living inside the greater deserts of Arab region exclusively depended on falcons and hawks for hunting birds and other small animals including rabbits and rodents. The Bedouins employed falconry for utilitarian purposes. They used the birds to hunt other large birds that gave plenty of good meat. These preys included geese, ducks and cranes. These birds were only found in the region when there was plenty of rain. During the other seasons, Bedouins used falcons to hunt rabbits, rodents and other desert animals. The falcons were extremely important to these communities given that bullets were either unavailable or very costly.

In the UAE region, falconry as a form of leisure was practiced by those who could afford it. These individuals included sheikhs and tribe heads. Initially, falconry was a means of obtaining food. The elite generated interest in falconry as the practice attained values and the community integrated it into the culture as a social leisure activity. The common men used falconry as a way of connecting with nature. On the other hand, elite in the community used the practice to express freedom and gallantry (Khalaf, 2009, p. 309).

Practicing falconry is a dynamic tradition. It evolves inside the extensive societal and fiscal backgrounds and experiences traditional revolutions as the community advances as was the case in the UAE setting. As the society discovered other means of earning a living, falconry gradually changed to a sport activity. Falconry customs are strongly embedded in the communities that practice it. The falconers possess shared universal values. For example, the approaches of teaching and caring for the hawks and falcons, the paraphernalia utilized and the attachments between the falcon and the falconer are found throughout the earth. The practitioners easily understand each other through simple signs. Any falconer can easily take care of a falcon from any part of the world. These are the common attributes that characterize the modern day falconry in the UAE. Falconry is currently popular as a sport as opposed to the ancient approach when it was seen as a means of livelihood. There is increasing popularity of the falconry as a sport facilitated by the UAE government (Vesley, 2008, p. 58).

Falconry is receiving remarkable revival with the backing and directives of state authorities in the UAE. Falconry and culture clubs have joined efforts in ensuring that falconry as a form of national heritage is sustained. Although the shared values of falconry are maintained by falconers, new falconers are adapting to shifting times. However, some communities of falconers still maintain the indigenous traditional costumes. These communities include Koreans, Belgians and Mongolians. These groups have distinct jackets, diadem and brooches respectively to indicate their identities (Khalaf, 2009, p. 310). In the UAE and other Arab countries such as Tunisia and Morocco, similar traditions are observed.

In the UAE context, falconry has undergone renaissance as it provides the modern Arabs with connections to nature (Wood, 2005, p. 138). It strengthens indigenous identities. The falconers in modern UAE regard themselves as a community as opposed to earlier falconers who did not identify with any grouping but rather practiced falconry as a means of livelihood. The modern falconers’ associations help strengthen the traditional ideals of partaking, socializing and joint backing of each other as brothers and consequently as a community. The falconers often hunt as a group. This aspect is shaped by cultural traditions and morals including how to collaborate as a hunting assembly.

A sense of brotherhood is created by these experiences and helps bridge tribal boundaries. A sense of nationhood eventually develops as falconers from different provinces of the UAE come together to practice falconry. In the UAE community, falconry is an important symbol of nationhood (Khalaf, 1990, p. 226). It creates a sense of national identity. The falcon emblem is used in stamps and other official instruments. The falcon is used in the court of arms as well as the official national emblem in a variety of Arab and European countries. Contemporarily, the falcon is exchanged by falconry Arab countries as a show of diplomacy and as a means of improving governmental relations. The UAE authorities facilitate the transmission of falconry from generation to another as a national legacy through a variety of means. The most common is through encouraging the mentorship of the art considering that it is a practical activity.

Falconry in the pre-oil era

In the United Arab Emirates, falconry is not considered as much of a pastime compared to the view of Americans and Europeans who perceive falconry as a form leisure without a survival aspect background. In most of the Arab countries in the Gulf region and Middle East, falconry has a different historical context. For centuries, the population that occupied most of the UAE region was Bedouin. They particularly lived in the interior deserts while these areas lacked abundant grazing land. This significantly limited the number and type of animals the occupants kept. The population having lived in these conditions for centuries had adopted the art of hunting wild animals that had the potential to survive in the hot desert terrain.

Falcons were a choice for the occupants to aid their hunting activities to supplement diet. During the pre-oil era, falconry was not regarded as a sport but rather as a means of getting food. The community would consume a wide range of animals that existed in the desert terrain including small gazelles, rabbits, rodents and birds. It was a requirement for survival. In order to further illustrate that falconry was not regarded as a sport, the Bedouin families would set the falcons free during summer. This was due to the fact that the average family could not afford to feed the falcons. The relationship between the birds and the owners was a transient one (Wakefield, 2012, p. 283).

Falconry in the modern UAE

The relationship between falconers and the falcons in the modern UAE is a permanent one. It is prized as a sign of affluence and indicates the maintaining of tradition. The previous value of falcons as hunting birds has significantly evolved with time. There is fresh focus and strong desire placed on the falcons in sporting perspective among many of the UAE families. The falcons are currently a prevalent leisure pursuit. By the 1950s, the buying and selling of falcons had become a typical practice.

The practice is contemporarily a participant sport that is largely pursued by (albeit not exclusively) Emirati males of all classes (Wakefield, 2012, p. 282). Currently, there is no designated zone for falconers to practice in the UAE. However, proposals are underway to have designated and managed areas for falconry. The government has prohibited falconry due to the threat of extinction of falcon’s main prey called the Houbara bustards. Falconers are only allowed to train the falcons but hunt outside the UAE. The government has built a facility for treating the birds known as the Falcon Hospital (Tutton, 2010, p. 1). This indicates that falcons are birds that have nationalistic element to the UAE community. Visual depictions of the falcon on national symbols of the UAE are essential in signifying and supporting national communal ties. They represent a view of the nation’s history.

In addition to falconry being part of the UAE national heritage, camel racing has also formed part of the heritage. This is due to the fact that the population in the UAE has undergone significant, rapid and reflective transformations augmented by the discovery of black gold (Khalaf, 1999, p. 85). These transformations include lifestyle and leisure activities which have significantly improved to reflect on the growing wealth of the population. Although it was practiced by small communities to celebrate specific events, camel racing has gradually become part of the heritage. However, the tradition has been invented in comparison to falconry which is a natural tradition.

Camel racing as part of heritage

During the gold rush era (1960s and 1970s), the camel and its desert ecosystem was abandoned and sidelined. Prior to the gold rush, the camel was a critical means of transport for the desert dwellers. This is based on the fact that it would maneuver the desert terrain characterized by sand dunes. The camel was so valued that nobody ever thought of keeping the animal for meat supply or in pursuit of leisure. Camel racing before the discovery of oil was a rare event (Hareb, 1996, p. 127). It would only be organized when the community had something to celebrate. These included religious holidays, rain, weddings and circumcisions. People valued the animal as a means of livelihood and not as tool for leisure such as sports.

The discovery of oil changed these perspectives (Khalaf & Hammoud, 1988, p. 344). The traditional socioeconomic activities founded on a survival economy could not quickly adjust to the entirely new economic reality. The initial economic industries and lifestyle collapsed and were replaced by huge sedentarization of the Bedouin people in modern villages and towns. The population enjoyed the blessings of wealth brought about by the discovery and selling of oil. They no longer depended on the camel as a means of transport.

The once all-brilliant, versatile, and four-hoof desert animal yielded to the Toyota 4-wheel machine. Roles reversed where the ‘ship of the desert’ was now being carried to different parts of the UAE to participate in camel racing. People realized that the old companion (camel) of man was gradually disappearing in purpose. They realized the importance of revitalizing and conserving customary cultural elements (Khalaf, 2000, p. 243). Eventually, camel racing was embraced as one of the traditions of the Bedouin. Thus camel would be carried on trucks to racing events as the general camel culture gained revival. However, in order to retain the cultural heritage in form of camel culture, the UAE population organizes annual camel racing events. Hence, camel becomes the focus of attention for both the indigenous and expatriates.

Camel racing as an invented tradition

The invention of camel racing was part of the community’s effort to retain the camel culture that had existed for thousands of years. The events are televised so that every family can enjoy the invented traditional sport from the comfort of their homes. A camel race is a nationally-growing industry that presents the participants with cultural wealth, gratification, social integrity and material benefits.

However, formal camel racing officially began in earnest in the 1980s. This was after people settled and enjoyed the benefits of oil discovery. During the pre-oil times, the races were held haphazardly by small indigenous communities (Khalaf, 2000, p. 247). They lacked elaborate rules. After the invention of racing, the initial participants faced the challenge of devising rules for the novel sport. Consequently, horse racing rules were adopted. However, unlike horse racing, betting is prohibited as it compromises the Islamic religious values. Over the last three decades, participants have accumulated experience and the sport has developed significantly. Elaborate set of rules have been developed presenting greater order, equality and calibration.

Unlike falconry, camel racing as an invented tradition has elaborate organizational policies that include all the stakeholders. This is not the case with falconry. It is only recently that the authorities realized the ecological impact of falconry that falconry was disallowed within the UAE. Hobsbawm theory can be observed in both falconry and camel racing where the participants seek to establish such activities with the country’s cultural heritage. The theory asserts that nationalism demands excessive conviction in what is not obviously the case (Hobsbawm, 1990, p. 5). In view of this theory, it appears that camel racing was not actually an invented tradition but rather a situation where people were required to subscribe to a common belief to uphold the tradition of the community which was threatened by the discovery of black gold.

Falconry as part of national identity of the UAE

Significance of falconry to Emirati people

The Emirati people hold falconry in high esteem. The importance of the practice is contributed to by diverse aspects. Sport and heritage has special meaning to the communities as they contribute to the daily lives of the community members (Gibson, 1998, p. 51). They communicate a strong message regarding the identity of the community and the ambitions for the future. By integrating the falcon in most national symbols, the practice is encouraged by the authorities as a uniting factor for the country. The practice is of particular importance to the political leadership in strengthening the sovereignty and unity of the country. People from the UAE are closely knit together through the sense of nationhood facilitated by falconry.

As a sport, it was the Sheikhs’ favorite. The nation holds their Sheikhs in high esteem hence view the practice from a national perspective. Additionally, the practice is considered important to the community given that it allowed ancestors to survive thus ensuring the continuity of the current generation. It was a way of life for the people. These people attach special importance to falconry as a cultural heritage.

The history of falconry is important as it reflects natural traditions can change to fit the needs of humankind.

Reinforcing falconry in the UAE

Falconry in the UAE is considered a high value activity. The authorities and community in general consider the practice as part of its heritage that requires to be maintained. It is a symbol of national unity for the UAE. Emiratis identify with falconry irrespective of their global location. It is a sign of cohesion of the UAE communities. However, in order to reinforce falconry, the UAE government has erected landmarks and sites that elevate the practice as a national heritage. These include the falcon hospital, national museum and creation of hawking zones. The accessible institutions bring into the public domain and helps develop a citizenry that considers the practice as part of national identity and heritage. The government has made effort to have falconry listed as one of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) in the country. The government shows significant interest in preserving falconry as a national heritage (Conroy & Thomas, 2010, p. 1).


Falconry is a natural tradition in the UAE. It has been practiced for centuries particularly by the Bedouin community. It is an important part of the country’s cultural heritage as opposed to being a mere sporting activity. The importance of falconry has shifted over time from a necessity for survival to a sporting heritage. Contemporarily, food is readily available especially after the discovery of oil. The local and national processes are what make the practice important in the modern UAE. In fact, the UAE communities consider falconry as part of their national identity. The falcon is used in a variety of national symbols as an emblem including the court of arms. The importance of the practice can be observed in the government’s effort meant to preserve the practice to present the past to the future generations by consolidating the heritage through falconry as a sporting heritage.


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