Hunting houbara: royal kidnap casts spotlight on Gulf 'sport of kings'

Wed Feb 10, 2016 1:25am EST
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By Tom Finn

DOHA (Reuters) - 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 in December in the Iraqi desert while hunting, including members of the country's royal family, has highlighted the risks of pursuing the "sport of kings" at a time of heightened regional turmoil.

No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, which happened in a region dominated by Shi'ite Muslim militia.

But what is clear is the immense wealth of Qatar and the Doha government's past successes in freeing political prisoners in war zones has made its own 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 Samawa, 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," he told Reuters.

It is perhaps the world's most elaborate blood sport - cargo planes fly tents, luxury jeeps, and falcons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars into custom-built desert airstrips.   Continued...

A Qatari man releases his falcon during a falcon contest at Qatar International Falcons and Hunting Festival at Sealine desert, Qatar January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon