The politics of Houbara Hunting
Modern Pakistani narrative owes its financial sustenance, religious credentials, and diplomatic beneficence to the various Gulf Sheikhdoms who have generously doled out irreplaceable petrodollars to harness the ‘Islamisation’ drive, which started in earnest, with the puritanical rule of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980’s. This absolute clientelism drove Pakistan away from Jinnah’s secular moorings towards retrogressive extremism, Hudood ordinances and the crippling ‘Kalashnikov culture’. The Sheikhdoms have supported Pakistan during 1965, 1971, in dealing with sanctions following the Pakistani nuclear test, and in a reciprocal gesture the Pakistanis have steadfastly provided the much needed security (both conventional - e.g. 11,000 Pakistani troops were sent to Saudi Arabia to defend the monarchy in the Gulf war of 1990-91, and with the ostensible security cover and pride of the only ‘Islamic nuclear bomb’). Crucially, remittances of hard currency from its diaspora of over 4 million Pakistanis in the Arabian Gulf (majority of 2.2 million in Saudi Arabia itself), accounts for a substantial economic rationale beyond the multiple bilateral and multilateral agreements with the Sheikhdoms that virtually ensure the control of the economic windpipe of Pakistan. Across the trilogy of the institutional power centers of the Pakistani establishment (Politicos, Military, and Clergy), all three hold the Gulf Sheikhdoms with a special reverence. While the Gulf money has successfully injected the alien Wahhabi strains in the Pakistani mainstream, the life-saving bailout to the Nawaz Sharif family (after the General Pervez Musharraf coup in 1999) by Saudi Arabia and the most recent optics of the ‘first foreign visit’ of the new Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa to meet King Salman of Saudi Arabia (to promise “complete security for the holy places in Saudi Arabia along with its regional sovereignty”), is reflective of the obsequious hold of the Sheikhdoms over the Pakistani establishment.
One of the regressive privileges that the Gulf Sheikhs routinely extract out of the overenthusiastic Pakistani establishment is the ‘special hunting permits’ to poach the endangered pheasant species, Houbara Bustard (also known as MacQueen’s Bustard or Asian Bustard), in unashamed violation of the Pakistani Wildlife Laws. Hunted by both guns and the more traditional Arab method of Falconry – these rare birds with black and white cravat make their annual breeding journeys from the Central Asian region to the arid wastelands of Pakistan in winters. For decades these migrations have attracted the Arab princelings to Pakistan to indulge in their wanton hunting sprees that have dangerously depleted the number of Houbara birds. These ‘special permits’ help circumvent the protectionist laws that ostensibly ban the hunting of the same in Pakistan. A wide estimate suggests that only 50,000 to 100,000 birds are left, less than a third of what existed 50 years lack.
The Houbara hunting parties itself are a throwback to the feudal times with advance parties that set up the camps near the nesting sites, replete with an array of glistening SUV’s, well-fed falcons, local guides, and retainers – till the arrival of the principal hunting retinue, usually in private jets that land in makeshift airstrips, maintained essentially for the annual Houbara hunts. In an ode to the Arab Bedouin culture, hunting falcons are frequently used to unleash themselves and swoop down on the hapless Houbaras (Falconry was included by UNESCO to its, ‘Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage’ of the Middle East). With mythical aphrodisiac properties, these Houbara hunts have acquired magnetic charm for the hordes of Arab royalty.
The winter season (December to January) witnesses the hunting mayhem with the issuance of these contentious ‘special permits’. A couple of years back, public outrage broke out over the news of over 2,100 Houbaras that were killed in a hunting spree in Baluchistan i.e. over 20 times more the official limit of the 100 Houbaras, per permit! Clearly, Houbara Bustards have been an integral part of the Pakistan’s ‘soft diplomacy’ to ingratiate itself with the Gulf Sheikhdoms, and nature is seen as a small price to pay for the Arab largesse. So much so, that the Pakistan government requested and successfully overturned its ban by Supreme Court to hunt Houbaras as it shockingly noted, “Inviting Arabs to hunt is a pillar of foreign policy”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had blatantly pleaded in review that “The petition involved a question of fundamental importance having a direct bearing upon foreign relations of the federation with the Gulf States”.
Recently the farmers in Baluchistan’s Kachhi District had protested in anticipation of the ‘special permits’ to the Qatari princes to hunt down the Houbara Bustards – besides disrupting the cropping season and the daily life with accompanying humdrum of the hunting paraphernalia, it is increasingly seen as a political symbol of Pakistan government’s sovereign infirmity and pusillanimity. This has recently woken up the Pakistani Supreme Court to uphold a petition to seek a ban on these ‘special permits’. However, despite loud protests from conservationists, affected locals and even some political parties (Imran Khan’s PTI-ruled, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has refused permission to the Gulf princes to hunt in their area of jurisdiction) – yet, permissions were granted in Baluchistan and Punjab provinces to the Governor of Tabuk province in Saudi Arabia (in Awaran district) and to the two sons of the former King of Saudi Arabia (in Layyah district in Punjab). While the official permission is supposedly for 100 Houbara Bustards per permit, the Governor of Tabuk is the same person who had infamously hunted down 2100 Houbaras in 2014-15. The language of the recent ‘special permit’ issued is a unequivocal testimony to the obsequious relationship that belies all international agreements towards protecting endangered species - “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan presents its compliments to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Islamabad and has the honour to state that the government of Pakistan has conveyed its recommendations to the authorities in the provinces concerned for allocation of following areas to the dignitaries of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Houbara bustard for the season 2016-2017”.
The servile mentality of the Pakistani establishment allows the sovereign pride to be conveniently swallowed and to remain bound to such archaic and shameful surrender to their Arab benefactors. In the face of desperate economic situation at home, international isolation for its famed double-standards on terrorism, and the looming prospects of further tightening of the noose with the impending Donald Trump government - Pakistan is desperately latching on to its few remaining supporters, even at the cost of depleting its natural resources, disrupting the lives of its vulnerable rural folks, and worse, whilst compromising on its sovereign pride when it acts like a vassal state that still prepares for royal hunts in the twenty-first century.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are personal.)