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Falconry and camel-racing: exploring Abu Dhabi beyond the skyscrapers

The gulf's cultural heritage comes alive in Abu Dhabi as we explore a falcon hospital, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and experience Emirati hospitality.

“I have been told that in England, it takes 50 days to train a wild falcon but, here, the Arabs had them ready in a fortnight to three weeks. This is because they were never separated from them. A man who was training a falcon carried it about everywhere with him,” notes English explorer Wilfred Thesiger in Arabian Sands, a travelogue documenting the author’s five-year journey across the deserts of Arabia, long before the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came into the riches bestowed by the discovery of oil.

While written in the 1940s, Thesiger’s observation continues to hold true in 21st century Abu Dhabi. Instead of traversing the Empty Quarter on horseback with their owners, today’s falcons are frequent fliers on Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the UAE. Armed with their very own passports issued by the Ministry of Environment and Water, these birds of prey sit on perches secured in front of cabin seats. In business class, each traveller is allowed to board with up to two falcons. Unlike their owners, falcons fly at a standardised rate across all cabin classes, ranging from US$180 (S$250) for a short-haul flight within the Middle East to US$390 for long-haul journeys. Perhaps a fair price since the birds – hooded for the entire journey to dull any sensory input – aren’t in a hurry to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

It is in the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital where I come eye to eye with an unhooded falcon. Sporting a pristine white plumage, the gyrfalcon regards me – possibly as prey – for a moment before scanning the room, where 20 other hooded birds, ranging from regal cream peregrines to dusky brown sakers, sit in silence, awaiting their turn for treatment. A rare sight indeed, for these solitary hunters to share perch, a wingspan away from their deadly comrades. “They will kill each other if we remove the hoods,” says Fahad Amur Al Badi, the administrative assistant of the hospital.

Established in 1999, the hospital is the world’s largest facility of its kind that treats over 10,000 birds each year. Its clientele includes royalty such as Sheikh Khalifa, the current president of the UAE, wealthy Emiratis, as well as falconers from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. “Last month, we had one customer who drove over 2,000km from Saudi Arabia to bring his falcon from here,” says Fahad.

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  • Desert

    Amber Swathe

    Over 50 years ago, Abu Dhabi was but a desert oasis.

While some birds come here for routine medical check-ups, others are here to have feathers replaced. Missing feathers destabilise a bird in flight and the hospital’s veterinarians are trained to replace feathers that match the exact shape and size of the original. The hospital is also well staffed and equipped to perform complex operations, including orthopaedic surgery for falcons that have sustained fractures arising from hunting expeditions.

With an ability to see eight times better than a human, falcons were historically captured and trained by the Bedouin Arabs to hunt game such as desert hares or gazelles. While significantly smaller than a gazelle, the falcon is able to wound its prey deeply by using its powerful talons to tear the cheek and throat of the animal. In the arid, inhospitable environs of the Arabian Desert, the birds greatly increased the survival rate of their nomadic masters.

Today, the art of falconry is not so much a tool for survival as it is a pastime for the wealthy. Prized falcons such as a pure-bred gyrfalcon cost at least $80,000. They don’t eat dry kibble either, favouring a diet of whole quail. While the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a working facility that treats up to 11,000 feathered patients a year, its doors are open to tourists. During our visit, one such visitor volunteers to hold a dead quail in her hand, allowing a falcon to perch on her arm and tear the carcass apart with its curved break.

This is perhaps where Abu Dhabi begins to warm up as a destination in its own right. As the capital and the largest of the United Arab Emirates’ seven emirates, the desert state occupies some 71,000 sq km of land in the Persian Gulf. While neighbouring Dubai draws tourists with its clutch of skyscrapers, Abu Dhabi allows visitors to get steeped in the gulf’s cultural heritage, not by way of manufactured experiences, but as an observer to traditions that are still very much alive.

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Ways Of The Desert

  • Al Ain Oasis

    The Al Ain Oasis.

At the Al Ain Oasis located in the Eastern region of Abu Dhabi, we walk under the shade of 147,000 date palms, seeking solace from the searing sun that scorches our skin while ripening the prized fruit hanging from the ancient trees. Sugar-rich dates – used in savoury dishes and turned into syrup for marinades – are not just a staple of the Emirati diet, but an enduring hallmark of Emirati hospitality, where visitors are presented with a platter of dates and Arabica coffee laced with saffron, cardamom, nutmeg and rosewater. At the oasis, farmers tend to over 100 varieties of date palms covering 1,200ha of land. The vast plots continue to be irrigated by the falaj, an irrigation system rooted in 3,000 years of ancient engineering wisdom, providing a glimpse into the region’s traditional ways of desert life.

Ten kilometres away, at the Al Ain Camel Market, the focus tilts to the ships of the desert, whose throaty bellows rise above the environment. At 4pm, the auction begins. Farmers from Oman, Yemen and Sudan parade their oft cantankerous stock, ranging from the slim off-white camels of Oman who look almost juvenile next to the towering dark brown stud from Saudi Arabia. The camels are assessed and purchased for milk, meat or racing. Rounds of intense haggling unfold between farmer and merchant before thick, dirty wads of cash trade hands.

Baby camels are priced at 2,000 dirhams (S$760) while racing stock goes upwards of 55,000 dirhams.

Viewing the chaotic, pungent livestock market in action, it is easy to imagine the Abu Dhabi of old where the explorer Thesiger had spent “the five happiest years” of his life. But it has been 50 years since the discovery of oil transformed Abu Dhabi’s desertscape into a glittering metropolis flush with skyscrapers. Soon, an architectural oasis will follow, with four new buildings designed by Pritzker prize heavyweights Frank Gehry, the late Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando and Jean Nouvel slated for construction on Saadiyat Island, a 27 sq km prime real estate adjacent to downtown Abu Dhabi.

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Qasr Al Hosn Abu Dhabi

Qasr Al Hosn Abu Dhabi

Cultural Oasis

  • Louvre Abu Dhabi

    Louvre Abu Dhabi.

While the other buildings remain a work in progress, Jean Nouvel’s masterpiece – Louvre Abu Dhabi – opened to the public in November 2017 to the tune of US$650 million. The Emirati outpost of the Parisian Louvre comprises 55 pavilions sitting under an intricate dome of layered, latticed metal.

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In the day, the sun seeps through some 7,800 perforations, casting dancing dapples of light on the floor and walls – a familiar pattern that recalled our walk under the canopy of date palms at Al Ain.

Nouvel’s colossal handiwork isn’t the only draw. With over 600 artworks sitting under the museum’s sweeping dome, some might argue that it is overshadowed by the 35,000-strong collection at the Louvre in Paris.

But what it lacks in heft, it makes up for in might. According to Manuel Rabate, director of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the institution aspires to be a “bold trailblazer in the region”, which explains an ambitious acquisition programme which sees the works of Rodin, Rothko and Basquiat sitting alongside Islamic treasures from the UAE.

In November 2017, heads turned in the art world when Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism acquired Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for US$450 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. Currently the world’s most expensive painting, it is slated to go on display at a later date.

Armed with enviably deep pockets and a thirst for a place on the world stage, Abu Dhabi appears to have taken the counsel of Sheikh Zayed Sultan Al Nahyan, former ruler of Abu Dhabi, who cautioned that “a people who knows not its past has neither present nor future”. For all its pride in progress, the young country still holds space for its culture and heritage, and visitors to the desert state will find much to behold.

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