ABU DHABI // With leather hoods covering their eyes, the rows of young falcons sat patiently on their perches as prospective buyers checked the quality of their plumage, wing span and weight. Some of the birds, on display at this year's edition of the International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex) being held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, will be auctioned off. Others may be bought on the spot for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dirhams during the event being held under the patronage of Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the Deputy Prime Minister.
All things hunting are on display at Adihex 2008, which is expected to attract more than 170,000 enthusiasts. A total of 526 companies from 37 countries are taking part in the exhibition, which runs until Saturday. Weapons displays, prize animal auctions and poetry readings celebrating the falcon will run throughout. A showcase of Emirati culture is also being held, including displays of traditional handicrafts.
On the first day of Adihex on Wednesday, a two-year-old camel was sold for Dh6 million (US$1.6m). At last night's camel auction, the bidding between buyers was intense as the animals were paraded around the arena. After a flurry of bids, the hammer came down at Dh480,000 ($130,665)) for a racing camel. Prized saluki hounds, horses and falcons, including 150 birds donated by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, are also on offer at the fifth edition of the exhibition.
"Years ago, hunting was not just a hobby, it was a means of survival and there were certain values that were created around it. Our slogan is 'deep-rooted tradition'," said Abdullah al Qubaisi, the director of the exhibition. "This show has been one of the most successful tools to pass these values from fathers to their children." He added: "We want to promote sustainable hunting and encourage falconers to hunt with birds bred in captivity to protect the wild [population]."
Thani Mubarak, the manager of the Falcon Centre, who has been training and hunting with falcons for a quarter century, recalls the moment his father presented him with his first bird. "I was 15 and I would take it outside of Dubai into the desert to go hunting," he said as he lifted the hood from the head of one of the young falcons for inspection. "Our family have been training and breeding falcons for a long time, this is not something new."
Perhaps the biggest draw of the exhibition is the weapons hall, where everyone going in or leaving passes through a metal detector. Rows of bullets are laid out in well-lit display cases. Visitors wear white gloves to inspect expensive handcrafted guns. At one stand, a group of children jostle to get better views of the weapons. Inside its own special room is the Sheikh Zayed Mosque rifle, which is valued at US$890,000. Displayed in front of a large image of the mosque's interior, the rifle is inlaid with 36 coloured diamonds and engraved with an image of the late founder of the nation.
With the current global economic gloom, Abu Dhabi may be one of the only places at the moment where such a gun would garner serious interest from buyers. Jonas Althen, of Swedish firm VO which made the gun, said: "Our clients are not visibly affected by any recession and here in the Gulf there is definitely a market. "Old money is not affected. Some people have expressed serious interest in the gun."
The guns and ammunition are "part of our culture", said Khamis Hamarain, the manager of MP3 International, as several visitors handed over credit cards to pay for goods at his stand. "Most of us have weapons and we feel safe, but most of our buyers are hunters." One of those customers, Khalfan Ahmed, 31, from Dubai, said: "I want to get a gun, of course for hunting. I hunt for birds and rabbits in the desert outside Dubai, which was what my great-great grandfather used to do. It's part of us, it's in our blood."
It was a sentiment echoed by many at the exhibition, including Fadil al Kaabi, the chief executive officer of International Golden Group, a defence product and system supplier. "It is part of our history and I take my children hunting like my father did. In UAE culture we like hunting, but here we want to also keep the nature for all people, so many hunters go outside the country to hunt," he said, seated in an area designed to replicate a desert tent. "I usually go to Tanzania, Mauritania or Kenya to hunt for birds and gazelle."
Horse championships are another key draw to the exhibition. Pawing at the ground, one dove-grey horse threw back its thin neck in front of a stand full of onlookers at the Abu Dhabi Junior Arabian Horse Show 2008 as the judges graded it on its beauty and poise in the foal colt category. At the third annual Arabian Saluki Beauty Contest, another sideshow at the exhibition, the hounds are judged on everything from their coats to their hunting instincts. Hamad al Ghanem, the director of the Arabian Saluki Center, is a fifth-generation breeder of the hounds, which he described as the perfect hunters and companions.
"They are part of our oldest heritage and culture," he said. "We were not introduced to these animals. When I was born, they were there. They have a spirit and a soul and we have to look after them, as they are supporting us." Other events include an Arabic coffee-brewing competition, as well as handicraft and poetry competitions, with categories such as the best poems describing a bird, a hunting trip and losing a bird.
An elderly man showed a group of children the techniques used in the production of honey, while in a stand next door a niqab-clad woman sat in front of a large pan, making luqaimat, a traditional Emirati sweet. Luxury mobile homes and camper vans were also on display, one of which opened up to reveal an interior made to resemble a traditional khaimah, or tent, including majlis-style seating. But, while visitor numbers are up and exhibitors say they are seeing interest in their products, event organisers are not oblivious to the global impact of the economic crisis. "Look, there is a financial crisis, but there is not a cultural crisis," said Mr Qubaisi. "It's not just about money; if we achieve our cultural and environmental goals then that is a good thing."