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."