Saudi Arabian wears traditional clothes, holding trained falcon
Saudi Arabian wears traditional clothes, holding trained falcon

Behind the pageantry

The history of falconry training in Saudi

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A man in a white thobe (similar to a robe or kaftan) and a red-and-white checkered Shemagh (headdress) stands tall against a tawny desert background with a regal falcon perched upon his wrist: It might be one of the most vivid images that comes to mind when you think of Saudi Arabia. The sport of falconry is, after all, a deep-rooted part of traditional Saudi culture. “Arabs used to use the falcon for hunting, and now owning falcons is a hobby,” says Tariq Alsalamah, operations manager of  Alboraq Destination Management & Travel Company. “Saudis feel very proud when they own falcons, due to their strong qualities.”

 

The History of Falconry in Saudi Arabia

Hunting with falcons has been an integral part of Bedouin history on the Arabian Peninsula for 10,000 years — archaeologists have even uncovered evidence of the birds among the remains of the Neolithic Al-Magar civilization found in the region. Although falcons were vital for survival in the harsh desert climates, hunting has been banned across much of the desert region since 1975. But the pageantry continues; today, “the sport of kings” is a widely popular hobby throughout the Gulf region. And while many associate falconry with the region’s wealthy royals and elite, it continues to play a major role in the fabric of local Saudi life. The 2019 installment of the annual King Abdulaziz Falconry Festival, held near Riyadh in December, even earned a Guinness World Records title, with a staggering 2,350 falcons in attendance.
Why is owning a falcon such a status symbol? “In many parts of the world, if someone owns a horse, it’s prestigious — that’s how people see falcons here,” says Luluah Alrasheed, a tour guide at  Shamal. “Falconry is very important here. It’s a main attraction in Saudi Arabia because of its tradition.”
Falcon

How Much Does a Falcon Cost?

Taming and grooming these majestic raptors is no easy feat, and the most coveted falcons can fetch a price tag of SAR250,000 (about US$66,654). Considering their value, don’t be surprised if you spy a falcon flying first class. “Sheikhs usually transport their falcons with them to festivals, and they treat them like their own kid — so they fly first class,” Alrasheed says.
Events like the King Abdulaziz Falconry Festival draw thousands of elite falconers from across Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region. “The main idea of the festival is to show Saudi Arabian identity and heritage and inherited cultural traditions to future generations,” Alrasheed says. She cites the falcon races and auctions as being the main events of the festival.

Aside from setting records, the 2019 festival also marked the beginning of a new era: Saudi falconer Adhari Al-Khaldi became the first woman to participate. While she always had her husband and family’s support, Al-Khaldi had to overcome many obstacles in a sport that’s long been entirely male-dominated. But with barriers being broken down all across the kingdom, Al-Khaldi and her falcon joined the 400-meter Al-Milwah competition. In the process, she’s paved the way for a new generation of female falconers, who can finally consider transforming their passion into a profession.

 

Explore Falconry Further

Learn more about the home of the King Abdulaziz Falconry Festival’s namesake ruler here.
 
— By Syeda Ali

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