Formula One is not the only racing sport with a large fan base in the UAE, as falcon racing carries cultural heritage, symbolism and tradition. A lifelong custom in the Arab world, it dates as far back as 3500BC. In the modern era, falconry is being used as a competitive sport in the Gulf region, while hunting is maintained as a hobby practiced and passed on through generations.
“The UAE spends an estimated $27 million annually to protect and conserve wild falcons and has several state-of-the-art falcon hospitals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” Souad Ibrahim Darwish, the Director of Championships at Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Center, told Al Arabiya English.
“Falconry is a cultural symbol of the region and the UAE’s national emblem,” she added.
Until the invention of the gun, the use of falcons was the only way to catch wild game to eat. It remained an intrinsic part of life in desert communities, being a source of survival in ancient times.
“In the Gulf, the way of life of the falconer is still appreciated, because everyone has a grandfather who did it and so has direct cultural links to it,” Gary Timbrell, CEO of International of Association of Falconry, told Al Arabiya English.
Being a cultural symbol, as well as the UAE’s national emblem, falcons are the “subject of poems by Emirati poets, reflecting the Bedouin love of falconry.”
“Capturing wild falcons at the beginning of the hunting season, hunting with them and then releasing them back to the wild has been done throughout the history of falconry and this has been totally sustainable,” Timbrell said.
As a mother would tend to her child during the early days, the falconer must remain with the falcon to nurture the relationship – during which the falcon learns to identify the falconer’s voice.
Trainers use a leather cap covering the eyes in order to tame the falcons.
“Live prey is used during training. They are enticed using bait such as pigeon wings whereby the falcon will be allowed to swoop before the falconer lures it away,” Darwish said.
However, training for racing is very different from training for hunting.
In order to be ready for a race, the falconer must begin months prior to the competition. After the falcon becomes comfortable with the owner and responds to his voice and movements, the trainer lures the bird to keep chasing a car while his hand would be outside.
Remote control airplanes are also another method of training falcons to race for long distances.
Cut to the action, and in the UAE excitement build up each year for the Fazza Championships for Falconry, which have been organized for the past 15 years or more under the auspices of the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Center.
“The falconry competition usually begins in December with the National Day Championship for Falconry (Furoukh category) for younger falcons. In January we conduct the Fazza Championship for Falconry ‘Tilwah’, followed by another championship in February, ‘Fakhr Al Ajyal,’” Darwish said.