- Saher Baloch
- BBC – Urdu Service
In 1983, two Pakistani army officers stopped at a car rental office in the small coastal town of Bisni in southwestern Pakistan. One of them asked the owner of the office: “Do you have a good car?” We want to take an Arab sheikh to the Bangor region.
The owner answered them in the affirmative and sent his son Hanif with them to inspect the car.
The car was intended for Prince Surur bin Muhammad Al Nahyan, who belongs to the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates, as he intended to go to the Bangjor region, which is located about a hundred kilometers from Bisni, to hunt bustards, which are rare birds, whose meat is believed by some to strengthen the desire Nationality.
The sheikh loved the car and Hanif, who was then 31 years old, and thus a strong friendship arose between them, according to Hajj Hanif.
For 37 years, Hanif and others have been caring for and serving members of the Al Nahyan family who visit Pakistan every year to hunt bustard birds, which are similar in size to turkeys.
The numbers of these birds are declining dramatically, and catching them has become a concern, but they are still hunted as a hobby.
There are powerful and powerful parties in Pakistan that have been protecting the secret hunting operations that have continued for decades to strengthen its relations with the influential circles in the rich Gulf countries.
These authorities justify the hunting trips of these birds in Pakistan on the pretext that they provide much-needed employment and investment opportunities.
However, in fact, it is not entirely clear what Pakistan is gaining from behind this, as some people familiar with the secrets of this issue say that members of the ruling families in the Gulf make these trips just for fun and pleasure.
Every year between November and February, Haji Hanif welcomes the royal entourage that flocks to the Pakistani part of Balochistan province, which is an hour’s drive from the strategic port of Gwadar.
Before the end of the winter fishing operations this year, Hajj Hanif invited the BBC to see the preparations and preparations that he and his crew are making carefully and precisely to receive the Emirati princes.
The lavish reception is a landmark event in a town like Bisni, where basic necessities remain a distant dream for most locals.
Two men met us and took us to the luxurious Haji Hanif mansion, close to the apartment complexes located a few kilometers from the airport road.
The plate of the jeep that took us was Emirati and we felt as if we were in a geographical area of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Our feeling was strengthened when we saw a huge billboard bearing the image of an eagle, the emblem of the United Arab Emirates, and written on it “The Palace of His Highness Sheikh Surur bin Mohammed Al Nihan” The palace is like an oasis in the middle of a poor, arid region.
The owners of the mansion provide jobs to dozens of locals. Upon our arrival, we saw men taking care of sheikh falcons and others cleaning the kitchen or repairing an SUV in a huge garage.
A man dressed in khaki clothes invited us to the guest room, where the scent smells of perfume, and we met there, Haji Hanif, who welcomed us and asked us about our opinion of the place.
Haji Hanif, now in his late 60s, is a polite and prolific speaker. He told us about the Sheikh’s visits to this place over the years and said: “After we helped him get a car, he came back to us again, and by 1988 my father and I were responsible for servicing 20 of the Sheikh’s cars because he trusted us.”
In Pencey, the visits provide an income for 35 locals who are employed three months before the arrival of the ruling family.
In addition to the men who care for falcons and the pigeons that are used to train these falcons, there are three men who take care of the garden that includes the Sheikh’s lemon trees, a person in charge of washing clothes, cooks, cleaners and car service.
And they employed a person who toured the vicinity on a motorcycle to spot the Houbara bustards, so that the sheikh would not have to drive the car for long distances.
Hajj Hanif helps three of his sons organize these trips. The eldest son takes care of the parking lot and 20 four-wheel drive cars for the sheikh, the middle son works as an escort and bodyguard for the sheikh and is responsible for security, and the third takes care of preventing the houbara from being caught or sold on the black market by the locals.
Pakistan began inviting members of the ruling family in the Gulf to undertake hunting trips in 1973 and since then many hunting trips have been arranged for Gulf princes to hunt the bustard, which migrates to southwestern Balochistan in the winter.
By 1989 the regional government, with the support of the federal authorities in Islamabad, formalized these arrangements, and each of the ruling Gulf families was allocated a region.
Bisni, Bangor, and Gwadar were the share of members of the ruling family in the United Arab Emirates, and the Jahal Jhaw region in the Awaran region to the east along the coast was the share of the sheikhs of Qatar, and Shaghi, to the north, of the sheikhs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
There are families, such as the Hajj Hanif family, who take care of the ruling families during the hunting trips.
Back in the seventies, hunting teams camped wherever the bustard birds were spread, and hunting trips usually lasted for a week, and members of the royal family cooked and ate the hunted birds before their return to the city.
But after the emergence of Baloch militants several years ago, security concerns arose in southwestern Balochistan and camping in remote areas is no longer recommended.
Most of the ruling family members currently reside in hotels or homes designed according to their desire, such as what Haji Hanif provides for them, as it only takes a few minutes by car to reach the desert and hunt birds that the designated employee finds in advance.
The traditional method used in the past was to release falcons to chase down the prized bustards and slaughter them as soon as they were hunted.
Hunters used to shoot houbara too, but these days, due to overfishing, falconers often catch houbara and then release them to the falcons only while the hunters are around.
Hunting Houbara, also known as Asian Houbara, has long been a controversial issue. This bird was common in the Arabian Peninsula, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now estimates the number of these birds around the world at between 50 and 100 thousand, and included them in the Red List of Endangered Species.
Many in Pakistan do not agree with what they see as a mere appeasement of “gentlemen”, but for some it is considered a way to establish better relations with brotherly countries. Over the years, Pakistan has relied heavily on the oil-rich Gulf states, receiving huge sums of money from them in the form of loans and investments.
A former Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman said they had tried to put an end to the “entire embarrassing” issue, but to no avail.
He added, “Many government officials are fully aware that these trips are useless and fruitless on the diplomatic front, but the influential forces have decided to continue doing so.”
The former official continued as saying that the relations between the UAE and Pakistan over the past 25 years showed that Pakistan did not get “anything” from this relationship.
Also this winter, Pakistan has been eagerly awaiting the visit of the Emirati prince, hoping that his fishing trip will help ease the recent rifts in the two countries’ relationship.
In 2020, the UAE included Pakistan in the list of countries whose citizens no longer obtain visas to work in the UAE, as remittances sent by Pakistanis in the UAE are a source of income for millions of families.
Experts saw the move as a way to pressure Pakistan on issues such as the relationship with Israel and the conflict in Kashmir.
Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government reject such allegations, or be affected by his country’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates.
Hunting is likely to continue. The Supreme Court in Pakistan tried to put an end to and ban hunting operations in 2015, but the ban only lasted one year. While the court’s ruling was still valid, the government used to issue special permits to dignitaries in the Middle East, allowing them to fish under specific conditions.
Haji Hanif says that the visits of these sheikhs are a good source for the town of Basni, and he is certainly the one who benefits from it.
He is also happy that the sheikh not only employs the people of the region, but also builds schools and clinics there and digs wells for drinking water. The only hurdle is that the schools have no teachers and the clinics have no medicine and staff.
“The sheikh can build the facilities, but he cannot guarantee that employees will get here. This is the task of the KRG,” he says. Despite everything, Haji Hanif does not want his children to follow in his footsteps.
And he says, “I am the servant of the sheikh, and I spent my life in this work and I am happy with it, but I do not want my sons to do that. I want them to follow their own path and enter the world of business and commerce and make a name for themselves in it.”