How a Central Asian bird is shaping Pakistan's policies
An old man once wandered the mountains and deserts of Balochistan. He asked to be buried wherever death came to him. One night, he fell asleep in the pleasant and soothing embrace of a breeze – called sargosh (whisperer) in Balochi – never to wake up again.
People buried him at the same spot and the place came to be called Wabshut (‘to fall asleep’ in Balochi). Today it is known by a variant — Washuk.
Centuries later, Haji Muhammad Bukhsh wandered the same area in the same way. So well did he know the place that only a few hints – sometimes as small as the mention of a rainwater drain or a mountain or even a tree – were enough for him to recognise a location.
Bukhsh claims to be approaching 90 and has married four times. In a conversation laced with profanities, he narrates how certain foreign visitors to Washuk would call him on a wireless phone whenever they were lost in the hostile expanse of the landscape around them and how he would retrieve them within hours, requiring very little information about their whereabouts.
Washuk town is located almost in the centre of Balochistan — more than 455 kilometres to the south of Quetta, about 800 kilometres to the north of Gwadar, 150 kilometres to the east of the Pakistan-Iran border and over 200 kilometres to the west of Balochistan’s border with Sindh.
Washuk’s eponymous district – carved out from Kharan district in 2005 – is surrounded by the mountains of Central Makran Range and shares a border with Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province.
A newly-built 235-kilometre road – part of the highway that constitutes the western route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and connects Quetta and Gwadar – criss-crosses Washuk district, which is so vast that its land area is equivalent to almost 40 per cent of the entire land area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Yet, its population, by some local estimates, is not more than 115,000. It is easy to get lost in this sparsely populated vastness, never to be found without help from local wanderers — the likes of Bukhsh.
A large number of under-construction brick and mortar buildings mark the road that links Washuk with Kharan. As the road moves out of the town, human settlements start becoming thinner and the vacuous immensity of nature takes over — except for occasional mud huts and rows of date palms.
About 30 kilometres to the north-east of Washuk town, a concrete and steel structure suddenly comes into view, made even more prominent by the empty landscape around it. It is an airstrip, complete with a residential complex and a hangar.
The airstrip is located next to the small village of Shamsi (pronounced ‘Shamshi’ by locals). Currently under the control of the Pakistan Navy, the base is not functional these days — well, almost.
Once every 10 or 12 days, a plane arrives here to deliver provisions to officials guarding it. Before the navy, Frontier Corps (FC) was controlling it and, before the FC, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).
When the base was under Nato control, the United States first used it as a logistical hub for its Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, launched in 2001 right after 9/11.
Later, the facility was used as a launching pad for unmanned aerial bombers known as drones that would target militants along either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The Guardian, a London-based newspaper, was one of the first media outlets to report about drones being flown from the base in Shamsi. In 2009, it said that America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a private security contractor, Blackwater, were working together at the base.
The newspaper said Blackwater patrolled “the area round the Shamsi airbase” and helped to load missiles on to “CIA-operated drones that target al-Qaeda members”. An American newspaper, The New York Times, had reported a similar story four months earlier.
A couple of years later, helicopters belonging to Nato forces in Afghanistan attacked a military checkpoint, known as Salala, in north-west Pakistan.
The November 26, 2011, attack left 28 Pakistani soldiers dead. In protest and retaliation, Islamabad asked Americans to vacate the facility in Shamsi. The airbase did not belong to Pakistan though.
It was built by Abu Dhabi’s ruling sheikhs to travel between their sheikhdom and Washuk for trips to hunt the houbara bustard, a migratory bird that escapes the winter’s chill in Central Asia by flying to Pakistan.
The first Arabs arrived in the area in the late 1970s. The most prominent among them was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who at the time ruled Abu Dhabi as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a federation that includes the sheikhdoms of Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain alongside Abu Dhabi.
His son and the current UAE ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has also visited Washuk multiple times.
In the early 1980s, the Arabs who used to land some 80 kilometres north of Shamsi decided to build an airstrip of their own, close to their hunting grounds.
They approached Haji Abdul Karim Mirwani, a resident of Shamsi village, to acquire land for the project. By 1987, he had given 360 acres of his own land as a “gift” to the sheikhs.
Where he once grew wheat and watermelons arrived massive construction machinery to build the airstrip. Mirwani says he transferred the land to the sheikhs through a zubaani, verbal, agreement (it was turned into an official lease agreement between Pakistan and the UAE in 1992).
The sheikhs initially built a lean strip for the landing of their C-130 aircraft. They expanded it in 1990 to its current shape and size.
The UAE rulers became extremely jittery about their security after reports emerged that the airbase in Shamsi was being used by Americans for drone attacks.
Given that the sheikhs from Abu Dhabi hardly ever visit Washuk these days, the government decided to let the sheikhs from Qatar hunt in the area
A May 2005 diplomatic cable, revealed by Wikileaks in 2011, quoted Ahmed Al Musally, director of the Asian and African affairs department at the UAE’s ministry of foreign affairs, expressing his “displeasure [over] some details of the UAE’s cooperation with the US military in Pakistan [having] become public”.
He stated that “there are 500,000 to 600,000 Pakistanis residing in the UAE and that [the] members of the UAE’s ruling families frequently visit Pakistan for hunting”.
Al Musally was concerned about the security of those royal hunters. “ … maybe they can’t do anything here [in the UAE], but they might try there (ie: Pakistan), especially when our leaders travel there.”
Arab dignitaries were wary of their security even before that. A rectangular compound next to the airstrip has grey walls as high as 20 feet.
These walls mark the boundary of a palace that the UAE sheikhs built in Shamsi — as per Mirwani, in 1990. The compound sprawls over 20 acres of land, also gifted by him.
‘Authorized Persons Only’ is written very prominently on its lone steel entrance — as high as 10 feet. A small patch of greenery lies just outside the gate — a testament to the Arab opulence that keeps the patch well-irrigated and pruned in a bone-dry, scraggy desert.
A vast open ground strewn with sand and gravel is what comes into view after one enters the compound. A path starting right after the entrance leads to an administration block.
The first thing one spots on the path is a petrol station that looks out of service. Its pumps are covered with cloth, apparently to protect them from dust. Next to the petrol station is a garage complex with the capacity to hold 400 cars.
Over a dozen four-wheelers and seven plough trucks are parked inside it. The manager of the palace sits in an air-conditioned office opposite the garages. A portrait of Sheikh Khalifa hangs on the wall behind his seat.
Residential quarters are located behind the administration block. The architecture is simple and functional and the furniture inside the large dining halls and guest rooms is cozy.
Once it was changed every year. These days, it is not even touched except when it requires cleaning.
The palace has 24 full-time employees — maintenance staff, auto mechanics, cooks, electricians, etc. Even though the sheikhs have not visited the palace for over 15 years now, the employees get their salaries regularly.
The compound is disconcertingly quiet. A year ago, its manager shot himself to death. Nobody knows why. A senior reporter in Quetta who maintained occasional contact with the manager speculates he could have been depressed.
The palace employees do not speak about the incident but at least one of them admits to feeling lonely at times.
The current manager was transferred here from Rahim Yar Khan where the UAE sheikhs own many vast properties.
Given that the sheikhs from Abu Dhabi hardly ever visit Washuk these days, the government decided to let the sheikhs from Qatar hunt in the area during the outgoing hunting season (November 1, 2016 to January 31, 2017).
Mir Abdul Karim Nousherwani, one of the first people to look after the interests of the rulers of Abu Dhabi in Balochistan, narrates how General (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, a federal minister from Balochistan, brought a Qatari hunting party with him and asked the FC to protect their camp.
Sheikh Khalifa immediately expressed his disappointment over the allotment of his hunting grounds to the Qataris, says Nousherwani, who later visited Abu Dhabi to meet the sheikh.
The locals, too, did not welcome the new guests and protested against the permission to let them hunt in Washuk. “This is Sheikh Khalifa’s area,” says Haji Muhammad Bukhsh, who has worked as a guide for the UAE royals since the 1980s.
Mirwani only echoes a popular sentiment when he says: if the Qataris come here again, “we won’t be too happy with it”.
The Qataris have been in the crosshairs of Pakistan’s chaotic politics of late — and not just for hunting in the wrong places.
During the last two months of 2016, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani, a former prime minister of Qatar and a prominent member of the Qatari royal family, sent two letters to the Supreme Court of Pakistan that was hearing petitions over alleged corruption and money laundering by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The letters attempted to explain the sources of money Nawaz Sharif and his family have invested in various businesses and properties since the 1980s.
Al-Thani wrote that his father had “longstanding business relations” with Sharif’s father who had “expressed his desire to invest a certain amount of money in the real estate business of the Al Thani family in Qatar … an aggregate sum of around Dirhams 12 million”.
The letters were subjected to intense media debate and judicial scrutiny before the Supreme Court rejected them late last month.
The judges ruled that they do not offer a sufficient and credible explanation for the offshore businesses, properties and other financial dealings of Nawaz Sharif and his family.
The Qataris, however, ensured they remained in the news even otherwise, all the while the Supreme Court was hearing the case. Consider the following case:
In Balochistan’s Nushki district, 16 members of a houbara-hunting party from Qatar were arrested on February 1, 2017. A report in daily Dawn said “an advance party of Qatar’s ruler ... ignored Levies personnel’s signal to stop at their post for checking and tried to escape by breaking the barrier”.
Another houbara-hunting convoy from Qatar was attacked in the same province’s Musakhel district by unidentified gunmen on the evening of January 15, 2017. Daily Dawn quoted a Levies official saying that the local district police officer and two other security officials were injured in the incident.
On December 17, 2016, farmers and tribespeople protested in Balochistan’s Kachhi district against allotment of land in their area to the Qatari princes for hunting houbara bustards, according to a report on news website Dawn.com.
The protesters blocked a road, claiming that agricultural lands in the entire Sani Shoran tehsil of the district had been allotted by the government to the royal hunters from Qatar.
A photograph carried by Quetta-based newspaper Balochistan Express showed around half a dozen men displaying a banner that said they would not allow the destruction of their crops for the sake of the Qatari princes.
A week earlier, chickpea farmers in Punjab’s Bhakkar district were enraged over a Qatari hunting party driving over their crops and not compensating them for their loss.
Mankera is a small town in Bhakkar district. It falls on the far west side of Punjab, near the province’s border with Khyber Pukhtunkhwa.
Hunting areas here are part of the Thal Desert that is spread over parts of Bhakkar, Khushab, Mianwali, Layyah, Muzaffargarh and Jhang districts.
It is an unusual place for a desert — sandwiched between the Chenab river on the east, the Indus river on the west and ringed by thick forests, its white sand dunes offer a highly suitable terrain for chickpea farming during winters.
When the low, thick chickpea plants line the dunes, they look like an undulating green carpet spread across the desert.
Two farmers in Mankera, who mobilised others to protest against the damage to their crops, have pictures showing a hunting party driving sport utility vehicles (SUV) right through chickpea fields.
Other images show vehicles parked amid fields while their occupants retrieve a hunted houbara bustard from a falcon’s claws. Men in traditional Arab dress can be seen gathered around the dead bird.
The farmers are upset — not only because their crops have been damaged, but also because the Qataris have not carried out any significant development work in the area even though they have been coming to Mankera to hunt houbara bustards for many years.
They have built a mosque here but, as one farmer complains, its control has been given to the affiliates of a sect that does not have much following in the area.
Last year, they promised to build a dispensary but its construction is yet to start. A 50-bed hospital is being built in Haiderabad – deep inside Thal – by Jassim & Hamad Bin Jassim Charitable Foundation.
However, farmers in Mankera say it will not benefit them much since it is more than 26 kilometres away from their farms and villages.
In any case, the farmers see the projects as no substitute to the livelihood they have lost as a result of damaged crops. The Qataris, however, cannot be blamed for compensation money not reaching them.
The farmers acknowledge the hunters have given some money to Ghazanfar Abbas Chheena, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) lawmaker in the Punjab Assembly, to distribute among farmers whose crops had been damaged.
But nobody knows the exact amount of that money – some say it is as low as 300,000 rupees; others put it at 600,000 rupees – and everyone complains that they have received none of it.
The farmers also reveal how the opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), approached them to facilitate their protest against the Qataris. “The [party] said it can send over 15 to 20 buses from Islamabad and provide food as well,” says one of them.
The PTI did lead the farmers protesting in Kachhi, Balochistan, where its district chairman Sardar Khan Rind also addressed the protesters and accused PMLN of “punishing” local residents for siding with his party.
But PTI’s involvement in protests against Qatari hunters could be just that — an attempt to criticise and browbeat PMLN rather than an effort to stop the Qataris from hunting.
Farmers in Mankera held a second protest in February this year, complaining that they had received no compensation — two months after the damage to their crops and just a day before a Qatari hunting party had left their area.
A few hundred protesters gathered near Mahni village, raising slogans for the acceptance of their demands. Nobody listened to them, they grumble. Even the media did not cover their protest this time round.
Chaar Makaan is a series of low sandy hills about 47 kilometres to the south of Kot Diji. Four paths converge here (hence the name that translates as ‘four houses’) — one each coming from Thari Mirwah (in the west), Choondiko (in the east), Nawabshah (in the south) and Khairpur (in the north).
It is a perfect location for finding houbara bustards that prefer to live in deserts, away from large water bodies.
A large tent is perched on a hill here on a cold mid-January morning, made colder by the previous night’s rain. Inside the tent, mattresses and blankets are strewn in a disorderly way. A compact SUV with an Abu Dhabi licence plate is parked outside.
The vehicle indicates that an Arab hunting party could be around — it is the vehicle of choice for sheikhs travelling to Pakistan’s hinterlands for hunting.
The sand is damp from the rain and dark clouds loom over the desert — a perfect day to be out in the wilderness. But the sheikhs have left a day earlier — their luxury tents, fitted with air-conditioners, carpets and sleeping bags, are nowhere to be seen.
They have also taken with them their fancy hunting paraphernalia of high-powered binoculars, wireless phones and highly-trained falcons. The tent still standing is being used by their staff.
The hunting season is about to end in two weeks and private security guards working with the hunters are still on duty. Another, smaller, hunting party is expected to arrive soon.
It will be the last of the three hunting parties to have arrived in Kot Diji this hunting season. One of them included the two sons of Sheikh Khalifa.
In the past, each party would hunt for a month. Now the government has imposed stricter regulations — each party now has a maximum of 10 days for the hunt and it cannot kill more than 100 birds in the allotted time.
Locals working for the hunters get to work in September, much before the first hunting party arrives on or after November 1, when the hunting season starts.
And they continue to work till the end of February, weeks after the last hunters leave. (The hunting season is dependent on the migratory cycle of houbara bustards: they leave their breeding grounds in Central Asia around August, enter Pakistan through Balochistan in August and subsequently make their way to Sindh and parts of south-west Punjab in September before flying back to their original habitat through Iran and Afghanistan in late February and early March.)
The sheikhs stay in a palace they have built for themselves in Kot Diji — once the seat of power of Sindh’s Talpur rulers. Today, the town is known as much for its ancient Talpur fort (after the night’s rain it looks as if parts of it have been washed away) as its shiny Abu Dhabi palace.
Administrators from the UAE arrive in Kot Diji weeks before the hunters do — to hire locals as security guards, helpers, drivers, cooks and cleaners and also to collect provisions such as groceries, dishes and tents.
Next, they set up tent settlements in the desert around Chaar Makaan. Reconnaissance groups (some of whose members have been working with the sheikhs since the 1980s) split the hunting grounds in sectors to make patrolling easier.
For days, they roam around the desert to ensure that no one hunts houbara bustards there. “We check the desert for tracks left by private cars,” says a senior member of a reconnaissance group.
He does not want to be named because he is not supposed to talk to the media. Let us call him Mujeeb. Members of these groups get into SUVs, leave their tents at Chaar Makaan at 8 am and return by the evening.
Each vehicle has at least three people in it — a security supervisor, a driver and an official from the Sindh wildlife department. The government officer is there, ostensibly, to ensure that no rules and regulations are violated during the patrol.
His actual function is to catch local poachers and non-Arab hunters. For this, he gets money from the sheikhs, over and above his government salary.
A week before the sheikhs arrive, reconnaissance groups start a daily survey to spot houbara bustards whose sandy brown feathers camouflage them well in the desert.
Unlike ducks and geese that generally flock together, these birds prefer to stay alone, making it even more difficult to spot them. The surveyors create a detailed report, complemented by a map, to describe the location and the number of birds they have spotted.
“When a sheikh lands [in Kot Diji], the first thing he asks for is a map,” says Mujeeb. The manager of the palace presents the map to the sheikh who selects the area where he wants to hunt. “That is when we lose all sleep,” Mujeeb says.
Reconnaissance groups have to leave on their mission of spotting the birds at 4 am and, on most days, they come back only by 7 pm.
On the day of the hunt, at least 10 to 12 SUVs accompany the sheikh’s car — including three vehicles carrying personnel of Sindh Rangers for security. All the vehicles are imported from Abu Dhabi.
The cars swerve and skid at approximately 120 kilometres per hour through the desert to reach close to the place where the birds are supposed to be.
Some locals, trained in spotting recent footprints of houbara bustards, are the first ones to step out of the vehicles. The bird travels mostly at night. If the night is a warm one, it is likely to stay put but it will keep moving if the night is cold.
It is known to walk even longer distances on moonlit nights. As and when the footprints are found, the experts warn everyone in the hunting party to maintain some distance from the birds — of at least a few kilometres.
Then the experts report to others in the reconnaissance group about the direction the birds are taking. The sheikh and his entourage are informed through wireless phones.
Within no time, about a dozen SUVs start making their way to the place where houbara bustards are expected to be. A falconer sticks his head out through a vehicle’s sunroof — with a falcon perched on his arm. Everyone waits patiently for the houbara bustards to fly.
The falcon is released as soon as the houbaras spread their wings and take off in the air.“It’s a life or death situation,” says Mujeeb.
Not only for the houbara bustards but also for the local staff. If the birds escape before the sheikhs get them, the hunters could get very upset. “[But] the falcons never let the birds go,” Mujeeb adds. A full day in the desert may result in the killing of 10 birds — even 15 if the hunters are lucky.
Syed Tasvir Husain is a hunter by passion and a lawyer by profession. He is also an avid conservationist and has conducted extensive research on the need for protection of Pakistan’s wildlife sanctuaries.
His family owns a bird farm of its own. Known as Tauqeer’s Wildlife, it is approximately 10 minutes away from a palace owned by the royals of Abu Dhabi on Lahore’s Raiwind Road.
Sitting in a house built by his mother – illustrious singer Malika Pukhraj – near Punjab University in Lahore, Tasvir reminisces about his encounter with Sheikh Zayed.
It was in the early 1980s. Zulfiqar Shah, a former army colonel and a close aide of the sheikh, called Tasvir’s elder brother Tauqeer Husain. “His Highness would like to visit your farm,” Shah said.
Tauqeer was not in the town at the time so he asked his younger brother to receive the guest. “He was wearing a T-shirt,” Tasvir recalls. It was a sunny day and Sheikh Zayed had wrapped a kaffiyeh around his head casually rather than sporting his regal head dress. “He was a very fit man, good looking in his own way.”
Sheikh Zayed spoke to Tasvir through an interpreter. Pointing to peacocks roaming around the farm, he asked: “How fast does this bird fly?”
“It is fairly fast when it is in full flight, but it is not nearly as fast as the houbaras that you hunt,” Tasvir remembers telling Sheikh Zayed.
When the interpreter repeated his words in Arabic, the sheikh looked straight at Tasvir.
“How do you know about the houbara?” he asked.
“I hunt too,” responded Tasvir.
“Where do you hunt?” came the next question.
“I hunt on the same grounds where you hunt.”
Tasvir’s paternal ancestors belong to Rahim Yar Khan. “Our forefathers have been hunting in that area much, much before you came here,” he told Sheikh Zayed.
“In fact, we still hunt [in the same area],” Tasvir tells me.
Hunting the houbara bustard, commonly known as tilor, is prohibited by various wildlife protection laws in different parts of Pakistan.
“We are not fond of hunting [the] houbaras but we still hunt to make a point — if hunting them is not allowed under the law, why are foreigners allowed [to do it]?”
The federal government issues special permits through the Foreign Office to Arab dignitaries for the hunt. Locals such as Tasvir never have those permits.
Mir Abdul Karim Nousherwani was a member of the district council of Kharan in 1980 when Sheikh Zayed first came to hunt houbara bustards near Washuk. He remembers the sheikh staying in the area for 15 days and, subsequently, receiving a 90-year exclusive lease of land to hunt there.
Nousherwani says Sheikh Zayed would hunt only in Washuk until the government allotted him other hunting grounds in Rahim Yar Khan.
Since those distant days, Nousherwani has won a Balochistan Assembly seat from Kharan four times, including in the last general election (his son Shoaib won the same seat twice – in 2002 and 2008 – and has been provincial home minister in 2002-08).
Over the same period, he became one of the main facilitators of Arab hunters in Kharan and Washuk. His assignments included escorting them to different places, providing them with food and other necessities and making sure they were protected.
He would receive a new car from the sheikhs every year as well as money to perform hajj and umrah. But Nousherwani is not the only Pakistani facilitator of these royals from Abu Dhabi. Maybe not even the first.
There was also the late Agha Hasan Abedi, a Karachi-based banker who would set up the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), mostly with money from Sheikh Zayed’s family.
As a senior employee of the United Bank Limited in the 1970s, he had developed close ties with the UAE sheikhs.
There were three other bankers among their early facilitators — Zafar Iqbal, who worked as a senior official of the National Bank of Pakistan in the UAE; a man named Islam from Sialkot; and another person named Mohsin from Karachi, says Nousherwani.
It was through the combined efforts of these bankers and Nousherwani that the military government of General Ziaul Haq allotted land to Sheikh Zayed, first in Washuk and then in Rahim Yar Khan.
Chaudhry Munir came into the picture a little later but seems to have surpassed all other facilitators as far as proximity to the Abu Dhabi royals is concerned.
A businessman from a settler family of Rahim Yar Khan, he has put together a social and political capital, slowly and steadily, that few others in Pakistan have.
Munir’s sister is known to be married into the royal family of Abu Dhabi; his son is married to the granddaughter of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter is married to the son of Lieutenant-General Naveed Mukhtar, director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
His cousin, Mukhtar Ahmed, is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army who now heads the non-profit organisation Houbara Foundation International that works closely with Arab hunters, especially those from Abu Dhabi. Mukhtar Ahmed is also spymaster Naveed Mukhtar’s father.
“Have you sent a plumber to the Qataris?” an inquisitive Major (retd) Tahir Majeed asks Major (retd) Abdul Rauf, with one hand in the pocket of his khaki jacket, the other holding a smartphone to his ear.
Rauf tears a bite out of peeled sugarcane (taken from a field nearby), looks at Majeed, jogs his memory and then shakes his head in the negative.
“They have been talking about some plumber,” Majeed repeats.
Rauf suddenly switches to speaking in Punjabi and asks someone to bring more sugarcane for him.
Both former Pakistan Army officers are employees of Houbara Foundation International. Majeed looks after visiting dignitaries from Dubai but this season he has also helped the Qataris set up their hunting camps in Layyah and Bhakkar.
The 50-bed hospital in Kharan, built by Abu Dhabi in 1992, has an operation theatre locked from the outside.
The two former majors are sitting on the west bank of the Indus river in Rojhan, a town in Rajanpur district. It is winter in southwestern Punjab and the Indus is as still and clear as the sky above it.
Their location is marked by a pontoon bridge that links Rojhan with Rahim Yar Khan district on the eastern bank of the Indus.
The royals from Abu Dhabi have financed the bridge. It helps the locals transport their sugarcane crop to sugar factories in Rahim Yar Khan without having to take a longer, and therefore more expensive, route.
A permanent bridge is at some stage of construction about 15 kilometres upstream but work on it is on hold. The pontoon bridge, available for all kinds of human and vehicular traffic, is open except in the months when the river has too much water to allow the pontoons to remain stable.
About 15 people work permanently on the bridge to keep it running. Around 100 more are hired temporarily every now and then to help the permanent staff with maintenance.
“The [Abu Dhabi] government has carried out quite a few development projects in Rojhan,” says Sardar Shabab Hussain Mazari. A short man in his early forties, he is wearing a black leather jacket to protect himself from the cold.
He is one of the many coordinators for the UAE government who together oversee 258 uplift works carried out in all four provinces of Pakistan.
Out of these, according to a list prepared by Houbara Foundation International, 28 are dispensaries and outpatient clinics, 14 are major roads and six are bridges.
Six airports, 26 housing projects for the poor that include accommodation for doctors and nurses working in the UAE-provided healthcare facilities, shops and toilet blocks mostly in Rajanpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Cholistan, Kharan, Mirpur Sakro, Washuk and Larkana, 30 schools and colleges in Peshawar, Swat, South Waziristan Agency, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Islamabad, Washuk, Kharan and Dera Ghazi Khan are also listed among them.
Generators to produce electricity in Washuk and Kharan, at least three major hospitals (one each in Lahore, Quetta and Rahim Yar Khan) and at least three centres for Islamic studies and research in universities in Karachi, Lahore and Bahwalpur are other Abu Dhabi-sponsored projects. There could be many others.
Houbara Foundation International ensures that construction for these projects runs smoothly and their eventual handover to provincial governments goes ahead without a hitch.
By its own claim, the foundation has expedited the pace of work on the projects.
"[Back] in 2002, a project would be handed over to the government five years after work on it started,” says Rana Kamaluddin, a senior official of Houbara Foundation International.
He also retired from the Pakistan Army as a colonel before he joined the foundation. “Now it takes about two years,” he says.
Kamaluddin’s job is to send “over a report about the issues of the projects to the [concerned] chief minister so that he issues directions [accordingly]”. That is done regularly to complete projects on time.
Even after being handed over to provincial governments, however, many projects have not achieved their intended development objectives. The 50-bed hospital in Kharan, built by Abu Dhabi in 1992, has an operation theatre locked from the outside.
No surgeon is present at the facility. The hospital does not offer medical care to local women because it does not have female staff. For complicated deliveries, women still have to travel to Quetta — a four-hour journey by road.
Many locals of Kharan and Washuk feel overlooked even otherwise. If the sheikhs spend 10 million rupees in Pakistan, 90 per cent of it is spent “on the other side of the country”, says Haji Abdul Karim Mirwani.
By the “other side” he means Rahim Yar Khan. Even employees at the palace in Washuk, many point out, are not locals. They always come from Rahim Yar Khan or some other part of Punjab, they say.
Nousherwani does not entirely agree with this. He says Sheikh Khalifa and his family employ more than 200 people in Kharan. He believes the reason why the palace staff comes from Rahim Yar Khan is not that there is any discrimination towards the locals of Washuk and Kharan.
These employees have been loyal to Abu Dhabi for years and have gained experience of managing a royal palace from their long years of work in Rahim Yar Khan, he argues.
Development projects in Rahim Yar Khan also seem to be doing better than in other parts of the country. The H H Sheikh Khalifa Public School has a state-of-the-art auditorium with close to 500 seats and a Cambridge-system curriculum.
A dispensary set up and mainly run with money from the UAE (Houbara Foundation International also pays for the running costs) offers cheap healthcare to patients from low-income homes. People come here for treatment sometimes even from Sindh.
The local airport, palaces, guest houses — all indicate that someone is taking good care of them.
That someone must have deep pockets — and also a lot of power, critics may point out.
A letter sent recently to the Chief Justice of Pakistan carries photographs of 27 checkpoints spread across Cholistan Desert in Rahim Yar Khan and its neighbouring Bahawalpur district.
These checkpoints, the letter alleges, are manned by a “private army” consisting of the staff of UAE royals working “under the garb of game and hunting supervisors”.
Headed by one Major (retd) Irfan, alleges another letter sent to the Herald, the “private army … has divided Cholistan in ... [nine] different sectors”.
These checkpoints are set up along various roads that link Abu Dhabi palaces in Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan with either hunting grounds in Cholistan or with two private airstrips – called Al-Habieb and Al-Ghaba – in the heart of the desert.
Pick-up trucks and jeeps can be seen patrolling here. A large part of Cholistan, criss-crossed by Abu Dhabi-built roads – which have milestones and signposts in Arabic – becomes virtually off limits for locals during the houbara-hunting season.
Officials at Houbara Foundation International deny these allegations. They say the only checkpoints in the area are set up by Punjab’s wildlife department and are manned by government functionaries only.
The letters do acknowledge the presence of wildlife department officials at some of the checkpoints but insist that theirs is only a token presence to legitimise operations of the private force.
Evidence suggests some use of force by patrolling personnel in the area. One video shows members of the wildlife department holding a local man by his arms and legs. It is not clear what for.
Another video shows some gunmen going through a villager’s cell phone to check if it has pictures of houbara hunting.
The letters list many similar incidents: a local landowner, Nawaz Nangiana, was “badly tortured” after he was taken to a checkpoint at Bijnot village; an old Cholistani, Mureed Las, was kidnapped by the private force; the son of one Haji Gul Mohammad Mahr was kidnapped and kept in custody for three days; his kidnappers also snatched 8,000 rupees from him.
The letters accuse the employees of UAE royals of committing other wrongdoings as well. These actions, according to the writer of the two letters, who wishes to remain anonymous, include kidnapping and even rape and murder.
He cites a story known publicly in the area that accuses some men at a checkpoint of killing two doctors of Ahmadpur Sharqia government hospital.
Munir insists that those not allowed to hunt houbara bustards are making up stories to make UAE royals look bad when, in fact, they have done a lot for Pakistan.
“In [the] 1980’s three young girls of Khanpur were taken to the palace by one of the supervisors on the pretext of showing them around the palace. All three of them were [raped] … and the matter was hushed up …”
The letters also allege palace officials have blocked a canal in Rahim Yar Khan and diverted its water to irrigate an Abu Dhabi-owned plantation called Salluwali farm.
Abdul Rub Farooqi, executive director of Jaag Welfare Movement, set up in 1997 as a non-profit organisation for social uplift in Rahim Yar Khan, is even more direct in his criticism. In his opinion, the presence of sheikhs from Abu Dhabi has not had a benign impact on the area.
Farooqi has also worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund as a child protection consultant and claims that more than 15,000 children were taken from Rahim Yar Khan to the UAE between the 1970s and 2005 to work as camel jockeys.
“Thousands of women were also taken [to the UAE along] with those children,” he says. “Not only would they be [employed in] prostitution, they would also give birth to children of the [camel] farm owners,” he claims.
Munir denies these allegations, even when he explains that he has nothing to do with development projects being undetaken by UAE rulers.
He dismisses claims that a “private army” is operating in Cholistan and says the division of the desert in sectors is a mechanism for easy navigation, rather than a tool for control.
“These are wildlife department officers [deployed] to [check] locals from hunting [houbara bustards] illegally.”
If you visit the desert and see the various projects built by royals of Abu Dhabi and those from other Arab countries, he says, “you cannot possibly believe that there is a private army” harassing the locals here.
The suggestion is unambiguous: Arabs are facilitating the locals, not making their lives difficult. As far as camel jockeys are concerned, Munir says no illegal trafficking of children ever took place.
“No such thing happened in the past. Nor does it happen now,” he says. Those who went to the UAE to work as jockeys were taken there after their parents had agreed and received substantial amounts of money, he adds.
As for allegations of murder, rape, harassment and women trafficking, he says, “These are false stories and there is no real, tangible basis for these claims.”
Munir insists that those not allowed to hunt houbara bustards are making up stories to make UAE royals look bad when, in fact, they have done a lot for Pakistan.
In January this year, officials at Rahim Yar Khan’s Sheikh Zayed Airport received a fax, alerting them about a plane carrying 14 passengers claiming to be an advance team for a sheikh’s hunting expedition — seven of them were guards, the rest were waiters.
They were all Indian nationals. The plane was just about to land when the fax arrived. Concerned about the safety of the airport and its staff, aviation authorities switched off all lights at the airport.
They called in security and asked the plane to turn around and leave. Some sources claim that all 14 passengers were from the Indian army but there is no evidence to verify this claim.
A different version of the same incident claims the plane was made to wait but the Indian nationals were never allowed to get off. They waited a few hours in the plane while an outraged UAE official spoke to Pakistan’s foreign ministry officials in Islamabad.
The passengers, however, left Pakistan after that conversation. Earlier the same month, six Indian nationals belonging to the “advance team” of a dignitary from the UAE landed in Badin, Sindh. They managed to leave the airport even when they did not have security clearance.
Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan certainly had these incidents in mind when, on April 25 this year, he approved a new set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all foreigners visiting Pakistan to hunt animals.
The new procedures require the ministry of foreign affairs to “share information of the staff associated with foreign dignitaries with all relevant quarters a week before they arrive in Pakistan”, a report in daily Dawn said.
Under the new SOPs, “Foreign guests and dignitaries are now required to share information regarding their travel details [with] the relevant authorities at least 72 hours prior to their arrival.”
The government has also banned “the issuance of landing permits (a visa for 72 hours issued upon arrival) and requires all foreigners, intending to hunt in Pakistan, to obtain a visa before they arrive in the country”.
Such departments as “the Federal Investigation Agency, the Anti-Narcotics Force, [Pakistan] Customs and the local administration” have been directed “to provide immigration, customs, security and other facilities at the designated landing points” for the hunting parties and their staff.
The protocol division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has three types of assignments: it receives foreign dignitaries, makes special logistic arrangements when a foreign head of state or government visits Pakistan and provides foreign missions, such as consulates, with security and cars.
It is also responsible for issuing special hunting permits for foreign heads of states or governments on behalf of the Pakistani government.
The permits are issued after the federal government makes “special relaxations in the provincial wildlife legislation … to respect bilateral relations with the Gulf countries,” says Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, country representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international non-profit organisation.
The process goes roughly like this: a royal hunting party approaches the Prime Minister’s Office that directs the foreign ministry to issue the permits, specifying the hunting area, number of houbara bustards that can be hunted and the number of falcons that can be brought in for the hunt.
These decisions are made in close coordination with the concerned federal and provincial departments, including wildlife departments.
Where hunting can be done and where it is prohibited is decided on the basis of information available with these departments. Security arrangements are made accordingly.
After the permits are issued and handed to the foreign hunters, the protocol division steps back and the customs and immigration departments take over.
Each falcon that enters Pakistan with the hunters has its own passport — to ensure that the same number of falcons are taken back and not more. The staff and other equipment coming with the hunters also go through similar controls — at least on paper.
Many hunting parties land at private airports or airstrips, arriving in their private planes. It is not clear if the customs and the immigration operations are carried out there — and how strictly, if at all.
The question is: why should Pakistan bother to issue special permits for hunting a bird that the Pakistanis themselves are not allowed to hunt?
Because we need to maintain close ties with the rich Arab countries, suggests a report prepared by Houbara Foundation International. It mentions multiple economic and financial benefits that Pakistan can get by keeping Arab monarchies happy through incentives such as hunting permits.
“Due to huge Sovereign Reserves with these countries, their economic managers actively try and locate avenues of investment which are safe and profitable.
For example, Abu Dhabi has a reserve of $1 trillion. Saudi Arabia $800 billion. Qatar has the largest reserves of gas in the world. Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of oil in the world.
Dubai, in a very short time, has become one of the largest hubs of finance and commerce,” the report states.
These countries also offer lucrative markets for Pakistani products. “Pakistan has developed modern tanks, JF-17 aircraft … likely to be purchased by these countries,” the report points out.
It then issues a warning. “The Royal families have many other choices and hosts available to them in other countries. It would be unfortunate for Pakistan and the local economies if the Royal families were to stop coming for their favourite sport …”
The Arab hunters also provide funds and resources to provincial wildlife departments that they otherwise do not have, says Kamaluddin.
Each hunting party brings in nearly 15 vehicles with it for the hunt and these are also used for patrolling, he says and adds that these vehicles help the wildlife department officials to protect hunting areas “from private hunting parties and poachers”.
The ability to patrol easily helps these officials to also “protect the habitat” of other animals such as deer.
If these protections are not available, says Mukhtar Ahmed, the number of houbara bustards in Pakistan will decline due to illegal hunting and poaching.
Poaching is a serious threat in poverty-stricken parts of Pakistan where the bird is generally found. A single houbara bustard caught alive can fetch as much as 35,000 rupees.
The poachers sell the birds in the UAE to those who want to train their falcons for hunting. Houbara meat is also considered an aphrodisiac.
If Houbara Foundation International is to be believed, issuing special permits to Arab dignitaries for the hunting of houbara bustards is in Pakistan’s ecological, economic and diplomatic interests.
But why should an Arab dignitary take so much trouble for the transitory thrill of seeing his falcon kill a bird? More specifically, why should dignitaries from the rich Arab monarchies spend so much money in securing hunting rights in Pakistan?
They want to pay back, says Kamaluddin. They are thankful to Pakistan for having looked after them, especially the UAE, he says. “Their banking system was established by the BCCI and they call Pakistan their second home.”
Another reason, according to Kamaluddin, is that the rich Arab countries are worried about their future. “They are not nuclear powers, nor do they have big armies. So they turn to Pakistan … And the world knows we are capable of retaliating. So they find a future in us, find help in us.”
Seen from this national security and foreign relations perspective, anyone opposing the arrival of Arab hunting parties must be playing in the hands of Pakistan’s enemies.
Kamaluddin emphasises that by pointing out how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the UAE almost coincided with a ban on houbara hunting imposed by a bench of the Supreme Court in 2015.
In order to totally isolate us, the Arabs have to be pushed away from us, Kamaluddin says. “If the [Indians] wanted us to get into a conflict with our allies, they found the easiest way [through the ban].”
A three-member bench of the Supreme Court had been hearing, for some time, multiple petitions seeking a ban on houbara bustard hunting. It announced its verdict on August 19, 2015, just two days after the head of the bench, Justice Jawwad S Khawaja, had assumed office as chief justice.
The bench declared: “Neither the Federation nor a Province can grant license/permit to hunt the Houbara Bustard.”
The judges directed the federal government to fulfil “its obligation under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flaura and Fauna (CITES) and the Convention on [Conservation of] Migratory Species (CMS).” Pakistan is a signatory to both.
The court also prohibited the government from permitting “the hunting of any species which is either threatened with extinction or categorized as vulnerable”.
Not everyone was happy with the court’s decision. Some locals took out rallies in Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan in November 2015 protesting the ban.
Participants of the rally in Rahim Yar Khan, particularly, insisted that Arabs have brought a lot of development and jobs for them and banning them from hunting would affect the well-being of the area.
The federal and provincial governments also challenged the decision before a larger bench of the Supreme Court that lifted the ban on January 22, 2016.
The judgment stated that the CMS did not impose “a duty upon the federation or the provinces to place a ban on the hunting of the species” that has an “unfavourable conservation status”.
The convention only obliges its signatory states “to enter into bilateral or multilateral agreements or treaties for the conservation of such (migratory) species”. As far as CITES is concerned, the bench said it was not relevant to the hunting of houbara bustards since the issue at hand was hunting, not trade.
The bench, therefore, concluded that no law exists in Pakistan to impose a permanent ban on hunting the bird. The judges, however, recommended that a strict code of conduct be implemented to regulate the hunt.
The judgement also contained a note of dissent penned by Justice Qazi Faez Isa.
“Code of Conduct for hunting [the] Houbara Bustard … to show that considerable care regarding over-hunting of the Houbara Bustard has been taken ... was issued without jurisdiction as the present matter did not fall within the domain of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, therefore, an officer of the said ministry too had no jurisdiction to issue the said code. Said code also had no statutory backing of any law, rule or regulation.”
Other judges did not address the matter regarding jurisdiction to issue the code of conduct — leaving it unclear as to whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs still has that jurisdiction or not.
Advocate Sardar Kalim Ilyas, who is representing a petitioner at the Lahore High Court in a petition filed in 2013 against the hunting of houbara bustards, believes the jurisdiction for issuing the code of conduct and the hunting permits actually lies with the provincial governments. According to him, all codes and permits issued by the foreign ministry should be considered illegal and unlawful.
But, as Ilyas points out, provincial governments cannot declare something legal for foreigners that they have declared illegal for locals.
The Lahore High Court has still to make a decision on the petition even though its chief justice has once remarked that sustainable hunting can be allowed — that is, if the population of the houbara bustards is either stable or increasing.
The wildlife department of Punjab claims the population is increasing. The same department in Sindh claims it is stable. The two departments are said to have conducted detailed surveys to calculate the number of houbara bustards in Pakistan. “They spend quite a number of months working on the surveys.
They visit every place and they personally spot the houbaras,” says Kamaluddin. Houbara Foundation International, he says, assists them in the exercise.
Figures collected by Punjab’s wildlife department in these surveys state that there has been a 10.11 per cent rise in the population of houbara bustards in Cholistan between 2012 (when 1,680 birds were spotted) and 2015 (when 1,850 birds were spotted). Increase in their number has been even steeper in Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur districts — 1,512 birds were spotted there in 2012 but this number rose by a whopping 33.27 per cent in 2015.
The number of birds spotted in these two districts, according to official statistics, was as low as 279 in 2010. According to the Sindh’s wildlife department, 8,100 birds arrived in the province in 2012-2013; 690 of them were hunted and 7,410 flew back to their breeding grounds. In the 2014-2015 hunting season, 6,350 birds arrived in Sindh; 580 of them were hunted and 5,770 returned to their breeding grounds.
According to department officials, the number of houbara bustards arriving in Sindh did not decline because of hunting but “due to unfavourable [meteorological] condition”.
If it had rained more, more birds would have arrived in Pakistan, says Kamaluddin.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s hunting party from Dubai killed 120 houbara bustards in Bahawalpur this last hunting season, an official of Houbara Foundation International says. (He also claims to have deposited 8.7 million rupees in government accounts on behalf of the UAE government, though he does not explain what the money is for since, officially, Pakistan does not charge foreign dignitaries for their hunting expeditions.)
The number of birds hunted by Al Maktoum, however, appears to be a violation of the code of conduct provided to each hunting party: no more than 100 houbara bustards can be hunted during one expedition which is to be completed within 10 days.
The number also contradicts official statistics. A ‘Field Report Regarding Houbara Hunting In the Allocated Areas of Punjab [2016-2017]’ signed by Muhammad Naeem Bhatti, deputy director of Punjab’s wildlife department, states only 57 birds were hunted in Bahawalpur this season. If that number is to be believed then Al Maktoum’s expedition certainly left after much less game than the official of the Houbara Foundation International claims.
Whatever the reality, both figures cannot be correct simultaneously. The department’s numbers, in any case, are highly suspect. Al Maktoum’s party was not the only one that hunted in Bahawalpur in the last hunting season. There were many others. If each of them hunted even a part of the birds allowed to them, the number would easily cross the figure of 57.
Does that mean that official surveys about the overall number of houbara bustards in Pakistan are also suspect? If one listens to non-governmental organisations, those numbers look really dicey.
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, published in 2016, the population of houbara bustards, also known by their scientific name Chlamydotis macqueenii, has undergone rapid decline over three generations (20 years) owing largely to unsustainable hunting levels, as well as habitat degradation. The list declares the bird as a ‘vulnerable’ species — just one stage away from being an ‘endangered’ species.
Total global population of houbara bustards is estimated to be anywhere between 78,960 and 97,000. But the compilers of the red list are careful to point out that determining the exact number of the birds is a major challenge and, thus, any data must be taken as a “tentative best estimate”.
BirdLife International, a global non-profit that has local partners in 120 countries and territories across the world, also confirms “ongoing declines” in the number of the houbara bustards in “some regions”. In Kazakhstan, which is home to 50 per cent of the global population of houbara bustards, their numbers are estimated to have declined by 26-36 per cent. “Anecdotal evidence indicates that there has been a recent decline in Iran and hunting pressure has been very high in Iraq … and Pakistan … in recent years.”
The report further states that the bird’s population is “projected to be declining” by 30-49 per cent “over a three-generation (20-year) window … ”
Houbara Foundation International was set up in Lahore in 1995, facilitated by a company called Security Consultants and Services Private Limited that employs 750 people, mostly former servicemen.The two entities operate from the same premises in the Upper Mall area of Lahore.
The foundation has two stated missions: to assist government departments in “enforcing the law of the land” in wildlife-related fields – with help from UAE dignitaries – and to facilitate the construction of welfare projects in areas where Arab dignitaries come to hunt.
Pakistan provides land for these projects and the Arab dignitaries fund them. The foundation does not deal with any financial transactions — it does not even have a bank account.
Kamaluddin, who is chief executive officer of Security Consultants and Services Private Limited besides being a senior member of the foundation, does not accept the statistics that suggest a downward trend in the global population of houbara bustards.
“When people say that the population is declining, we ask them [as to] what is the basis of [their] statement, especially in our country,” he says.
He doubts if any counting can be done while the birds are migrating from one country to another. If they are really counting the birds during migration, “that means they are doing surveys in Central Asia, in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh”. Something almost impossible, he suggests.
Kamaluddin also insists that he has never heard about any of the international organisations “doing this survey” in Pakistan.
UAE rulers still seem to agree with these international organisations. As early as the 1970s, Sheikh Zayed realised that the population of the bird was decreasing. He initiated a programme dedicated to sustainable hunting and the protection of houbara bustards.
That programme culminated in the formation of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC).
One of the main functions of the fund is to breed the houbara bustards in captivity and release them into their natural habitats. In 2016 alone, according to the fund’s own figures, 53,743 houbara bustards hatched across its facilities.
In 2014, 46,014 houbara bustards were produced by the fund’s facilities and 33,685 were released in the wild.
The main question around these efforts is: how do houbara bustards bred in captivity survive once they are released in the wild? According to IFHC’s director general, Mohammed Saleh Al Baidani, the survival rate was 30 per cent last year which, according to him, is not a bad figure.
According to IUCN, promoting the breeding of houbara bustards in its natural habitat is a preferred solution over captive breeding. Each female bird on average lays two to three eggs.
If arrangements can be made for the hatching of those eggs in the wild, the newborn birds may have a better survival rate than those nurtured in captivity, the organisation argues.
For that to happen, however, it is imperative to protect the bird’s habitat and to place a ban on its hunting and poaching.
On the evening of March 1, 2017, a four-member IFHC team landed at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport. It brought with it 500 captive bred houbara bustards.
The team, led by Al Baidani, set out the same night for Sheikh Muhammad Bin Zayed Deer Breeding and Houbara Research Centre at Lal Suhanra National Park, a few kilometres south-east of Bahawalpur city. They arrived at their destination early next morning.
The research centre is set up on an area 15 kilometres long and four kilometres wide. Fenced off from the rest of the park, it has two entrances and is not open to the public — security towers surround it on all sides.
That day, scores of media vans and government officials made their way to the centre where 200 captive bred houbara bustards were to be released into the desert.
When the scheduled time for the release arrived, the birds were picked up one by one from their cages and helped into the air. Many of them flapped their wings and flew away. Many others made just a short flight before getting down to the earth to walk back near the crowd.
The team then hurried to Bahawalpur airport where a private jet was ready to take them to Rahim Yar Khan for the release of the remaining 300 birds. Poles with flags of Abu Dhabi and Pakistan fluttering in the desert wind indicated the release site.
As the afternoon temperature soared, birds were taken out one by one from more than 20 cages and set free.
One bird was found dead even before it could be taken out of its cage — an electronic tracking device around its body was removed and was attached to another bird.
Within the next couple of days another 70 to 80 houbara bustards were spotted dead close to where they had been released. Some were attacked by wild animals; others died because of the heat.
The remaining birds could very well have been hunted by a prince from Abu Dhabi who happened to hunt in Rahim Yar Khan a day or two later.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Herald's May 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.