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The name of the game is petrosports
J.D. Reed
November 17, 1980
Golf champ Mohammed Ahmed isn't the only athlete hitting it big out on the Arabian desert. Oil funds lavish facilities for sports from falconry to ice hockey
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November 17, 1980

The Name Of The Game Is Petrosports

Golf champ Mohammed Ahmed isn't the only athlete hitting it big out on the Arabian desert. Oil funds lavish facilities for sports from falconry to ice hockey

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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.

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.

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