Azum! Azum!" The cry is carried on the desert wind. A speck appears on the horizon. Within seconds it gains definition, becomes Azum, a female saker. The rust-colored wings shear the air as the 1½-pound falcon builds speed. She has spotted the whirling training decoy 400 yards away. The lure, made of two 18-inch-long wings from a hubara, a goose-sized desert bustard, spins eccentrically on the end of a seven-foot leather thong. Choosing her moment, Azum seizes the decoy with her talons and opens her wings to brake to a stop on the ground.
It's late November, and on the hard-pan floor of the desert the temperature is 50°. Hasan moves toward Azum, talking softly, taking from the pocket of his thoub—the ankle-length robe favored by his people—strips of bloody pigeon meat to reward the bird.
Hasan is a Bedouin. His ancestors were also falconers. They've practiced this form of hunting for 2,500 years as they moved from water hole to water hole with their camels, tending goats, following the old trade routes. Hasan was a falconer before oil was discovered in the Persian Gulf in 1932, a falconer even before the British gunboats came in the 1920s to patrol the shallow Gulf, bringing with them the sports of soccer and cricket. Today in the cities of Arabia there are volleyball and track, golf and tennis. But the ultimate sport of princes and kings remains falconry.
As Hasan coaxes Azum onto his wrist, the shamal, the fierce and humid north wind, begins to blow, and a piece of cardboard scuds across the gritty desert and slaps against a chunk of rock. The slogan BUDWEISER, THE KING OF BEERS is printed on it. It is, after all, the 20th century even here in the Persian Gulf, and change has come with lightning speed, thanks to petrodollars.
November 17, 1980
In 1973 OPEC quadrupled the price of oil, and as one result, sports in the Arab countries became a matter of first importance. The Arabs' new international eminence in economics and politics fanned a sudden desire for similar distinction in athletics. And, as we shall see, internal social pressures made emphasis on sports all the more attractive. Thus in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Qatar the rush was on to build elaborate sports complexes, staffed with imported foreign coaches and surfaced with the latest in synthetic turf. In short, the Arabs were attempting to graft Western sports onto Middle Eastern culture. But by 1979 the Gulf states were discovering that world-class teams couldn't be assembled overnight. As Shaikh Hasan bin Abdullah al-Shaykh, Saudi Arabia's minister of higher education, has observed, "It is easy to make a building but most difficult to build a man." And of late the states have slowed down somewhat, to consolidate what they have learned about sports development.
Hasan places Azum on a roost with six other falcons in an open Range Rover, takes a swig of Pepsi and regards his wristwatch, a chunk of gold dusted with diamonds. It's time to go, and he's off at 70 mph across the desert, the plaintive sounds of Arab music blaring from his stereo tape deck.
Soon he hits the six-lane blacktop that leads into Manama, the capital city of the country of Bahrain and home to more than half of its 390,000 residents. Bahrain is a better spot than most to ponder the emergence of petrosports. Halfway down the Gulf, through which passes nearly one-half of the Western world's oil, Bahrain is made up of a group of islands, the largest of which is thought by some to have been the site of the Garden of Eden. That island, also called Bahrain, is dotted with lush date groves and sweet-water springs. It is the trade and educational crossroads of the Gulf world, the offshore banking capital of the Middle East, with assets rivaling those of Singapore and a communications network boasting direct-dial satellite telephone links to New York and Europe. It claims to have the highest number of telexes per capita in the world.
The Cavalry Bar in the Bahrain Hilton, a halfhearted attempt to reproduce an English pub, is in spirit more like a Yukon gold-rush saloon. Late in the evening, when the subject of money has finally palled, the American and European businessmen speak of sports.
"You see," says an old Arabia hand from Britain, "some of these countries got their independence only a few years ago, and two of the things they most want are a seat in the U.N. and Olympic gold medals—stepping-stones to becoming accepted nations."
"It's more than that," says an American refinery manager. "The rulers down here want to toughen the natives. With the troubles in Iran, they're scared.
"And they've got one hell of a youth problem. Kids are restless and bored, and sport is something young people can be kept busy at."
Talk flows in the Persian Gulf as freely as oil. Saudi Arabia, so the scuttlebutt has it, is building sports cities that are opulent beyond the wildest Western dreams. The emirates are rumored to be spending millions on British coaches. Before it went to war with Iran, Iraq was said to be working secretly with the East Germans to produce a stable of steroided superathletes. Certainly the Iraqis are serious about sports; they spend more per capita on athletics than any other country, including the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
Driving through Manama in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow with Shaikh Esa bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, secretary-general of Bahrain's Supreme Council for Youth and Sport, one gets a clearer view. The Khalifas are closely related to the Saudi ruling family and have run Bahrain since the 18th century; Shaikh Esa, a quiet, shy, slightly built man, is a nephew of the current amir, Shaikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa. The secretary-general is going to visit his volleyball hall, which was first used for the 1979 Pan Asian Volleyball championships. Its golden geodesic dome glitters in the sun next to the slips of dhow builders constructing their craft with curved ribs carved out of tree trunks, as they have done for centuries. Outside the dome, two air-conditioning units the size of heavy tanks—the only size locally available—are bolted to a concrete slab.
"Our building is quite modest," says Shaikh Esa as he walks around the dome. "It seats 2,300 and has a training room and dining facilities. It is big enough to use for basketball and team handball as well as volleyball. We are smarter and thriftier than we were a few years ago. Then, just for prestige, we would have built another hall for basketball next door." The building cost $2 million, twice as much as a similar building would in the U.S. because of the necessity of importing labor and materials.
Shaikh Esa is known as the "sports shaikh"; in Arab states important areas of governmental, business and social activity are often relegated to a shaikh to oversee, and Shaikh Esa's fief is athletics. Like most royalty in the Gulf, he was educated abroad; he earned a degree in chemical engineering at Southampton University and became a devotee of British soccer. Still a fan, he will call up a friend the minute he receives the First Division results on his home telex. "Thought you'd like to know," he'll say at 4 a.m., "Spurs and Palace drew 1-1."
A former Gulf table-tennis champ and an avid tennis player, Shaikh Esa's views on sports are those often heard around the Arab world. "Our younger generation has grown up without knowing the lean times," he says. "Seventy percent of our population is under 20, and although education is catching up fast, our youngsters have little to do. They're restless and undirected. We think that sports can change that.
"Even more important, sports represents a way for us to get to know people from other countries. We Gulf Arabs were rather insulated, even from one another, only a few short years ago. The emphasis on travel for national and club sporting teams has had more to do with our increased political awareness than all the ministry-level talks in the world."
The volleyball hall is situated in a section of the city considered lower-class, and the Shaikh offers a small apology. "I always eat lunch at the Gulf Hotel," he explains, "and so I said, 'Put it where I can check the progress of the construction.' " Royal whim still prevails in the shaikhdoms of the Gulf.
While Bahrain has moderated its athletic building program, the Saudis are still in the deep end of the pool. They are in the process of creating three "Olympic" sports complexes, which will cost from $500 million to more than a billion dollars apiece. In Riyadh, the capital and business center of the country, they have already finished a three-pool swimming hall modeled on the one Munich built for the 1972 Olympics. A five-stop elevator carries divers up the tower alongside the diving pool while a compressed-air mechanism blows bubbles into the water to cushion their entry. The floor of the training pool can be hydraulically raised and lowered, and the main pool is equipped with $500,000 Swiss timing and control mechanisms. An indoor sports hall has also been completed. The price for both halls was more than $30 million, but the Saudis liked them so much they ordered two more pairs, one for Jeddah, another for Dammam.
The Riyadh complex also is scheduled to be the site of an 80,000-seat stadium. A sports training institute is currently under construction, and the 153-acre site will eventually include a velodrome, a hotel and a motel, a sports clinic, areas for equestrian sports and shooting, a theater, an auditorium, a museum, a social club and a mosque. It is a project of such scope that it would require half of Riyadh's present electric generating capacity for air conditioning alone, and will cost an estimated $1.5 billion when completed. But even the Saudis are economizing: they've cut $25 million from the bill by eliminating travertine marble floors included in the original design.
"What the Saudis are doing," says Craig Menees, until recently manager of Arabian Chevron, "is the equivalent of starting to build the entire athletic plants of all the Big Eight and Big Ten schools from scratch, and at current prices, and with at least half of them under construction at one time. It's dazzling."
Saudi Arabia, which is the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi, has a native population of only about four million. What, one wonders, is the point of such lavish spending for sport? The question could be asked of Bahrain as well. At his diwan (royal office) in West Rifaa, a few miles from Manama, Crown Prince Shaikh Hamed bin Isa al-Khalifa, a smiling and imposing presence in his Air Force general's uniform, says, "There is no hope for a man to keep his morality without a strong body. So the Koran instructs us. And we would like to show the world that we are competitive, that we can win. We Arabs are patient. We started with the Arab Games. Then the Asian. Then the Olympics."
The 30-year-old prince, a graduate of Britain's Sandhurst who spent a year at the U.S. general staff college at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., is also Bahrain's minister of defense. A seat-of-the-pants helicopter pilot, a crack shot and an accomplished horseman, he knows something about competition. But in the Arab world, traditional beliefs keep colliding with modern realities. The amir himself shuns his stable of Rolls-Royces and Mercedes and wheels around in a four-door Chevrolet Caprice because he trusts the suspension. He was aghast when his son wanted to fly airplanes. But after the prince and a test pilot from Messer-schmitt-Boelkow-Blohm had convinced him that a helicopter was not an airplane, the prince was grudgingly allowed to get a special model with backup engines and rotors. He flies it almost every day, delighting in whipping over Bahrain's only "mountain," a 450-foot crag of limestone jutting up from the desert floor.
Like most Gulf countries, Bahrain depends on the West not only for its sports hardware but also for its advisers and coaches. Iraq works with Eastern-bloc imports, the emirates and Saudi Arabia with the British. Bahrain has called in Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich, 49, president and founder of the United States Sports Academy of Mobile, Ala., a nonprofit, non-governmental group that since 1976 has had a multimillion-dollar annual contract with Bahrain for sports development.
The hearty Rosandich is a former athletic director at the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus, an ex-Marine captain who is awakened each morning by the corps hymn programmed into his clock-calculator, and a track coach who has worked in 52 countries during the last 25 years. "If we do our job here right," he says, "we'll be out of business. We don't regard our people as coaches but as advisers. The ideal is for the Bahrainis to take over every coaching and sports-medicine job." The academy has 17 coaches and advisory personnel living in Bahrain and also supplies experts, on short-term loan, in everything from the pentathlon to stress statistics and from desert allergies to orthopedic surgery.
Rosandich deals with the shy Bahrain-is as if they and he were fellow Rotarians. Even while observing Arab etiquette in respect to titles and precedence, he is liable to drape an arm across royal shoulders and boom, "Well, Your Excellency, how's the doubles game? Hot competition this afternoon. Better get out of that robe and into your shorts." Fortunately, such bonhomie tends to send princes into fits of delighted giggles.
Rosandich is the Billy Graham of push-ups, the Rex Humbard of stress testing, an old-fashioned, red-white-and-blue sports missionary. "The academy is providing essential services for Bahrain," he says. "If we can get a few top-notch Arabs to look on the U.S. with favor, what does that hurt? About all we can offer is our expertise in sports and telling the truth.
"When I first came out here, the thinking in the Gulf was, 'How can we buy a gold medal?' I told them flat out it was impossible. You can buy the Dorchester Hotel in London, but you can't buy Olympic gold.
"We started testing Bahraini youth, and sure enough, over 50% of the kids couldn't do a single chin-up. The backbone of our program is the schools. With such a small population base, that's where you must build for the future. And all the Gulf countries have adopted the idea. Youth is the answer."
Perhaps, but coaching Arab youth presents unique problems. In Isa Town, a modern, planned community of 25,000 near Manama, Elwood (Woody) Duernberger, a former University of South Alabama tennis player and coach, now Bahrain's national coach in that sport, points to a group of boys 12 to 16. "There's the national team," he beams. On bright blue-surfaced courts at dusk (it's too hot to play during the day), the boys are hitting the ball passably well. "The older ones have little hand-eye coordination because they grow up playing soccer," says Woody. "So we're going for the younger kids, where the muscles can be grooved in more easily."
Also, like many Arabs, Bahrainis are obsessively reserved about their bodies. Throughout the Gulf, there's no such thing as a shower room: showers are private stalls with doors. "It's an improvement, though," says Elmer Kortemeyer, who for two years was the sports therapist for Bahrain while on leave from the University of Northern Iowa. "They used to come dressed for a game and go home to bathe." Kortemeyer adds that groin injuries are another problem. Because of the athletes' embarrassment, such injuries often go unreported until they become dangerously complicated.
The modesty required of women can impair a whole sport. In liberal Bahrain, which encourages women's track, basketball, volleyball and table tennis—major breakthroughs in the Gulf—one doesn't encounter such strictures. But in Kuwait, for instance, girls must play volleyball in full warmup suits.
Another difficulty for Western coaches arises from the fact that many Arabs have little sense of the Western idea of training and practice. The emphasis is on individual effort. They do not comprehend the idea of team spirit, and that to win as a team means practice as a team.
"But it's a big mistake to think that, because they're modest or don't understand training, Arab athletes lack heart," Kortemeyer says. "I've had kids come to me with year-old ankle injuries because they didn't know that a trainer could fix them up. The injuries must have been terribly painful to compete on, but they never whimpered."
At the 1979 Gulf team handball championships, in Kuwait, Kortemeyer's assessment proved accurate. Team handball is a bruising game, but no one shied away from the contact. The Iraqi and Saudi finalists, playing in 95° heat, were clearly tough, and they behaved pretty much like any team athletes in the world. They talked back to the referee, slammed each other on the shoulders to celebrate goals and pulled phony injuries to stop the clock.
The crowd was also similar to any at a championship event. The Iraqi fans carried flags and banners and chanted, banging on drums and clapping hands as they did so. Separated from them by a high barbed-wire fence, the Saudis flown in for the game wailed right back. The wide corridor between the factions of about 3,000 each was patrolled by Kuwaiti soldiers—indicating perhaps that the new intra-Arab relationships Bahrain's Shaikh Esa speaks of have a way to go.
There are seldom any women at Arab sports events other than a few black-veiled nut vendors. Crowds are male, as lazy-looking as baseball fans, most with their feet up and their sandals off—until, of course, something happens. In the middle of the stands is the obligatory VIP platform, which is carpeted and lined with lounge chairs and small tables.
On the platform during the handball championship loomed the giant form of Big Mo, 41-year-old Mohammed Ali Abul, a 6'2" Bahraini businessman, former star soccer player and head of his country's handball federation. "Sports in the Gulf are in worse shape than they were 20 years ago," he boomed, flipping his gutra (headcloth) over his shoulders. "Everything is travel. It's a great accomplishment if the basketball team goes to Turkey for three days and it costs $120,000. The more you spend, the more successful the trip. Madness! And what the team did in Turkey? It's not for publication. But it wasn't very Muslim, I can tell you.
"The other federation heads think I'm crazy. They say the only way to attract top athletes is to make a lot of trips. The money's better spent in the schools." Big Mo laughs uproariously as an Iraqi player upends a Saudi defender.
In the streets and out on the desert, soccer is the national pastime of the Gulf countries. It is played wherever and whenever there's time and the heat isn't stifling. At dusk in Bahrain's Isa Town, the kids start trickling out of the houses and head for the soccer field, a piece of hard-baked desert with old two-by-fours rigged as goals. Some are dressed in robes and some in Six-Million-Dollar-Man T shirts—which may not be a joke here—and most of them are barefoot. They do wheelies on their bikes as they pedal toward the field. Once there, they go at soccer loudly and furiously. As a rule they display a light touch on the ball and a tendency to showboat and to disregard team play.
With such a small population, Bahrain worries, as do most Gulf nations, that it may never have a national team competitive enough to get to the World Cup. Also, the life-style is such that young men give up playing sports when they're 25 or so, and World Cups are won by teams of 28-to-30-year-olds.
Dr. Ron Koller, a Sports Academy official in charge of program development in the Middle East, explains, "There isn't much motivation here for a kid to keep on with sports. There are no intercollegiate sports, for one thing, so any kid going to college is out of it. And there's no real professional sport. The ultimate is to be on a national team and get a little cash, a new suit and a lot of trips."
Lou Brocic, a former player and coach for Belgrade's Red Star team and now Bahrain's national soccer coach, says, "I have to rely on club players, who aren't the highest caliber because they can't train—they have other jobs. So while they're marvelous ball handlers, they have little game sense, no soccer sense. They're 50 years behind Europeans."
One of the finest soccer clubs in the Gulf is in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, an hour's plane ride from Bahrain. Al Nasr (from the Arabic for "victory") Club is the brainchild and plaything of Shaikh Mana bin Khalifa al-Maktoum, known throughout Europe as "the football shaikh."
With a few other investors, Shaikh Mana is building a $70 million, 1,300-acre sports center. Already completed are a 15,000-seat stadium with an artificial-turf field, a private-membership clubhouse and a sports-medicine center. Other facilities, in a portion of the complex called Leisureland, include a pool, restaurants, fast-food counters, tennis and squash courts, a twin-cinema theater and a hotel. An amusement park has been completed: for $2.70 on weekdays and $5.40 on holidays, a visitor can enjoy a "wave" pool, rides, a theme park, shooting galleries, a 12-lane bowling center and, most improbably, ice skating in a full-size, 1,500-seat hockey arena. The English-based Rank Organization, manager of the park, is reluctant to reveal the cost of the refrigeration necessary to keep the rink frozen in a building where the ambient temperature is 83°.
"It's exciting to introduce a new sport," says Shaikh Mana, who clicks worry beads with one hand and smokes a cigarette with the other. His arena opened a year ago, with two Finnish teams appearing in the inaugural ice hockey game. Already a league of six teams—made up mostly of specially imported Canadians and Europeans—books the rink for two games a week.
The newest project in the Dubai sports center is a 3,000-seat tennis stadium for pro tennis tours. A government-sponsored tournament scheduled for Nov. 19 is offering a purse of $680,000, the biggest in the sport.
In Abu Dhabi, the most heavily populated of the emirates with 236,000 inhabitants, the first phase of an "Olympic city" has been completed: a 60,000-seat stadium, home of the national soccer team. "The ruler of Abu Dhabi makes enough in oil revenues. He can afford it," says Shaikh Mana. "The Olympic city will cost a billion dollars. Unfortunately, out of pure competitiveness, the people of Dubai wanted one, too. I talked them out of it. What are we going to do with two Olympic cities? In all the emirates we have a population of only 877,000. In my opinion, Abu Dhabi should have built a stadium for $100 million, given $100 million to the school system to ensure that there would be someone to play in it and given the remaining $800 million back to the government."
Though he preaches economy, the shaikh has a taste for American-style spectacle. He opened the stadium at his sports club in 1978 by hosting Liverpool, an English First Division soccer club, and marked the occasion with skydivers, fireworks and circus animals.
In 1977 Shaikh Mana brought the former manager of England's national team, Don Revie, to coach in the emirates for $1 million over four years. By the time Revie's contract was terminated last summer, he was discouraged. "Hardly any of the plans I put forward have been carried out," Revie said. "Basically, my idea was to bring in eight schoolboy-football experts to establish a sound training and coaching setup at that level—the big problem here is that football isn't really organized in the schools, and there's little P.E. training. When you look at most footballers here you'll see that their stomach and thigh muscles are virtually nonexistent. In terms of fitness, teamwork and tactical discipline, there's still an enormous amount to be done to catch up with countries such as Iraq, Kuwait and Iran."
Nevertheless, Shaikh Mana is optimistic—about spectacles, if not homegrown talent. "Someday we will host an Olympics here. England estimated that it would cost them $2 billion to put one on. Soon, who can afford it but us?"
Golf, introduced years ago by the British, is also in line for an infusion of petrodollars. For example, the Awali Golf Club in Bahrain is an 18-hole, par-71 sand trap—there is no natural-grass course in the lower Gulf. "Hell, I've never even played on grass," says Clarence (Howitzer) Lambeck, a Texas oil worker. "You hit every shot from a strip of plastic grass about two feet long and 10 inches wide that you carry around with you. You can tee up or hit right from the plastic, and you always know where your ball lands by the puff of dust."
The "browns," as they're called, are sand mixed with crude petroleum, brushed down around the pin. "They're really fast if they've just been oiled, but when they dry out, they're murder," says Howitzer. "Still, you never have to worry about replacing divots."
Fairways are outlined in crude oil, and the course has its unique problems. Howitzer ticks them off. "If you don't play at 5 a.m., the heat'll get you. I mean, when you're out there in 115° in August, you can get real worried that they haven't filled the water jugs [Igloo coolers of ice water lashed to scrub trees around the course]. There are stories of foursomes that never returned."
All the camels on the island are the property of the amir, and they can roam at will. "One of them was using the No. 7 brown for a bedpan one morning," recalls Howitzer, "but I put a drive right under that old boy's neck, and he wheeled around and took off out of there like lightning. Haven't seen him since. And goats. You get a stroke off if you hit one. And on the 15th there's the water hazard. Of course, it's bone dry, but it keeps your spirits up."
Shaikh Esa has built a course with real grass greens near the Bahrain Equestrian and Racing Club. The Saudis, never to be outdone, are planning a multimillion-dollar, 18-hole, artificial-turf course in their country's eastern province.
Fittingly, the sport in which the Arabs have won some world recognition is the one that relies most heavily on oil. Saudia, the national airline of Saudi Arabia, co-sponsors one of the hottest Formula I race cars on the circuit, the Saudia-Williams. With Arab petrodollars backing the design of a youthful Britisher, Frank Williams, and the driving talent of Australia's Alan Jones, the team has won 10 Grand Prix and this year's Formula I World Driving Championship. So pleased are the Saudis, not only with the car's record but also with the resultant publicity, that they intend to host a Grand Prix within a few years.
Dubai has sponsored a series of "Golden" track events at various locations over the past three years. In one of them, in Oslo in 1979, Sebastian Coe set a mile world record of 3:49.
For all their costly involvement with race cars and ice hockey and swimming pools and real grass, the Gulf Arabs have by no means lost interest in those sports most profoundly their own—camel racing, horse racing and falconry, but in the latter two. Western influence has grown.
By December the new Bahrain Equestrian and Racing Club will be finished, complete with two two-mile racetracks for the international circuit (with irrigated grass infields), two polo fields, an irrigated jumping and show arena and stables for 300 horses. Racehorses from places like New Zealand, Hong Kong and England are expected to compete for purses equaling the largest anywhere.
But the main attraction in Bahrain for connoisseurs of the sport of kings will continue to be the racing of the royal Arabians. During the December-to-April season, the amir arrives every Friday afternoon, at the wheel of his blue Chevy, to indulge his passion. Thousands of Bahrainis, expats, Saudis and tourists throng to the two-mile sand oval near the royal city of West Rifaa.
There is no admission charge, and there are also no seats. One stands in the broiling heat, looking longingly at the amir's tribune—a low cement platform outfitted with the usual collection of Persian rugs, easy chairs, tables bearing boxes of colored tissues, telephones and bottled water. Surrounded by falconers carrying hooded birds, advisers, family members and friends, the amir bids the races begin. And there's no doubt who the winning owner will be—the amir owns all the horses. All the jockeys are his employees, and all wear silks in the national colors, red and white.
The amir's pureblood Arabians are rightly called the Living Treasure of Bahrain. His stable is estimated to be worth more than $50 million, and to see the horses run—clockwise, in the British fashion—their flanks lathered in the heat, and to hear the crowd howl is to witness one of the enduring Bedouin obsessions, thousands of years old and as fierce as the sun.
Although the amir will preside at the opening ceremonies of the new horse racing/equestrian/golf center, he grumbles about the competition. "Why did they want to spend millions to build that place when everyone knows that my horses are the best?" he says. "Who will go see these lesser animals?"
A lot of folks, particularly if rumors that his government will allow pari-mutuel betting prove true.
Development in falconry has also been considerable. Near Crown Prince Hamed's gardens in the village of Zallaq stands the $250,000 Sulman Falcon Center, one of the few places in the world designed for the breeding of such birds. "In the 2,500-year history of the sport, falcons were never bred," says Joe Piatt, 34, the falcon biologist who is director of the center. "No animal has been in such close association with man so long without being improved." Piatt received his doctorate from Cornell, where in 1973 falcons were first successfully bred in captivity, an achievement that caught the attention of the prince two years later. "He made inquiries about doing the same thing in Bahrain, and I've been here ever since," says Piatt. He gestures toward the center. It contains seven two-story, temperature-and light-controlled breeding chambers, each with a viewing window facing on a room where observers can sit on deep leather sofas and watch the birds through one-way glass. There are also rooms for incubating eggs and rearing young falcons, a complete veterinary hospital, library, kitchen, lounge and a backup generator in case of power failure.
"We have to control the light to duplicate the length of the day in the breeding grounds of Russia and Romania, where the saker hawks mate," says Piatt. "And of course the temperature.
"We got our first clutch of chicks in 1979, from a pair of Australian peregrines. And this year we've had six more. We're raising and training them now. It looks good for sakers, too, in 1981, so we're very excited."
The Arabs' ignorance about falcons, given the fact that they have hunted with the birds for 25 centuries, still amazes Piatt. "When I put male and female sakers in the cage, the old falconers who came to visit were shocked,' he says. "They'd thought for centuries that the larger female was a different species from the smaller male. To them, it was like putting a horse and a cow in the same stall. I had to show the prince pictures of the birds mating before he believed me."
Now the old falconers trust Dr. Joe, as Platt's called, enough to bring their ailing birds to him for treatment. "At first they were afraid of me, but after I'd cured a few birds, they all came," Piatt says. "Birds here are still treated with folk remedies, as people were not so long ago. If something hurts, you poke a hot iron at it. If a bird cuts its foot, they pour gas or oil on it, depending on whether it's bleeding. And falcons have a lot of nose trouble. Guys bring in birds that are breathing with a whistling sound, and when you question them, they tell you they've put a hot poker in the nostrils. But things are getting better."
King Khalid of Saudi Arabia flies 100 birds or more during the December-to-April season, and the amir of Bahrain about 40, although each year his three best birds go to the king as a tribute that has been paid for centuries.
A major falcon hunt by the crown prince, which may last a month, resembles a military operation. If he is going to a favored desert area in Saudi Arabia, his two giant mobile homes and half a dozen Range Rovers are shipped over to the mainland by boat. The falcons, however, go by plane. "The birds ride in first-class airline seats," says Piatt. "On a big hunt there may be 30 birds, and to see the stewardesses and the other passengers watch as these terrified birds dirty everything and are fed raw pigeon meat to calm them is something else again."
Using the motor homes as a base camp, hunters range in their Rovers across the desert, with a spotting bird—a particularly sharp-eyed hawk—riding in the front seat. It can descry a hubara at two miles. When a group is seen, the falconer releases a hawk from the back of the car, and the chase is on. Saker falcons aren't trained to climb and circle and dive on their prey. Because the desert gives the hubara no cover, it never hides and freezes like a pheasant. It attempts to flee. The saker must fly flat and fast to overtake the long-legged hubara, which will run as well as fly. The chase may last for miles, amid shouts, wails and roaring engines, sometimes ending when the hawk makes a clutch kill, riding its prey to the sand. "There are no wounded prey in falconry," says Piatt. "The falcons miss 75% of the time, but if they hit, the bird's dead."
The new practice of taking shotguns along on falcon hunts has done a great deal of damage. Hubaras are much prized as food by the Arabs, and the use of guns has sharply reduced the bird populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan, which is worried about the decimation of its hubaras, there is pressure to close the borders to falconry, a movement that's not expected to succeed. Saudi Arabia has banned the use of shotguns, but Piatt says dejectedly, "If you're a prince, who's going to tell you to stop?"
The issue of wildlife management is getting critical, and the Bahrainis are proud of the new Areen wildlife park, the Gulfs first, a 2,000-acre habitat where visitors can ride in air-conditioned buses past the animals and birds and hear lectures about the necessity of preserving them.
On a hot summer night Crown Prince Hamed leaves his gardens and drives his Mercedes down to a big tent five miles away in the desert, where, as his forebears did, he sits by the fire with the old falconers. He takes a young falcon on his wrist and strokes its feathers as the moon rises through the waves of heat. He's far from the pressures of the ministry of defense. He's home, at peace. "It is difficult to explain that the desert is a peaceful place for us," he murmurs, removing the falcon's hood. "You can have the beaches and the mountains. In fact, many of the laws of sports—teamwork, cooperation and spirit—are essential in the desert. There you test your friends and your men. Your life can depend on them. For me, the desert is a spiritual exercise. It is the renewal of my soul."
And at a dinner party in Manama last year when he was the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, Robert Pelletreau, who speaks, reads and writes Arabic fluently, said, "The Arab world has compressed the phase of violent overexpansion that took the U.S. from the Civil War to World War I into 10 years. The job now is to develop a post-oil economy, and Bahrain is leading the way. The Gulf States understand that when the oil is gone, when the last Rolls-Royce is rusted out and the last Gucci loafers worn through, sports can remain as one of the best investments they have made."
GULF OF ADEN
GULF OF OMAN
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES