Hamad Al Ganem, Director of the Arabian Saluki Centre, in his element. Image Credit: Supplied picture

The preservation of traditional Emirati sports like falconry and Arabian Saluki hunting is imperative to the safeguarding of UAE national identity, say students, academics and experts.

Horse, camel, dhow and saluki racing, along with falconry, emerged from traditional Bedouin culture. Activities that were once closely tied to the community's survival now find expression in a sporting atmosphere with the express intent of raising public awareness and keeping traditions alive.

"In terms of the national identity problem we have in our country, tourists and people coming in from abroad should see these things [traditions] everywhere they go — starting at the airport," said Dr Hassan Al Naboudah, Chair of the History Department at UAE University.

"People should know they are in the UAE and these elements should reflect our heritage, history and culture as we need to preserve whatever culture belongs to the nation," he added.

Yet there seems to be a lack of awareness and interest about the traditional way of life amongst modern Emirati youth, which Al Naboudah believes can in part be blamed on school and university curricula.

"Part of the problem is the curriculum and what we teach our students," he said. "If you don't have Emirati instructors who pay attention to the culture of the region, but instead hire expatriates to teach, of course we will have a problem preserving the Emirati culture," he says.

"Horse racing and car racing are my hobbies," said Hamad Adnan Al Zarouni, business student at Sharjah Men's College. "I know about the other traditional sports only because my parents taught me but I don't practise them," he added.

Awareness initiative

However, not all the youth are out of touch with their national heritage. A group of students calling themselves Al Namoos meaning ‘valuable object' from Zayed University used their final-year project to educate themselves and their peers on the age-old traditional sports of their Bedouin ancestors.

Over the course of four months, Muwadda Al Marri, Fatima Al Marzouqi, Sameera Al Hosani and Khowla Al Muhairi researched and put together a short documentary about sports native to the UAE.

"Al Namoos comes from Bedouin vocabulary and is typically used in traditional sports. It relates to prizes given out to winners of the races," said Fatima. "Prizes range from cash to yachts," she added.

Having interviewed Bedouin falcon hunters and camel racers, Fatima says the documentary's primary function was to educate.

"We wanted to focus on tradition because we know some young Emiratis don't know about these things," said Fatima. "We wanted to show them these traditions are still alive and they need to pay attention to them," she added.

"It is important for young Emiratis to be educated about their past because this is an important element of our national identity," she said.

"It is also highly important for the country's tourism. We have lots to offer foreign visitors in terms of Emirati history and heritage," she added.

"Traditionally in the past all these ‘sports' were an element of survival," said Hamad Ganem Shaheen Al Ganem, director of the Arabian Saluki Centre and board member of the Emirates Falconers' club.

Al Ganem explained that falcons and salukis were and are still used to hunt Arabian gazelles, pigeons and pheasants. "Camels, horses and the traditional wooden dhows were used as transportation, but nowadays we have fibreglass boats, submarines, cars, trucks and airplanes as new modes of transport," he added.

Dhow racing evolved from pearl diving which was practised to extract pearls for trade. "In the old days it was all about exchange," he said.

"Yet, these animals still exist and have the strength, so we must use them in another way for people to take advantage of. These sports keep the traditions going for future generations not to forget where they came from," said Al Ganem.

"We must keep the past alive and maintain it for the future," he said.

Too taken up with gadgets

If the youth aren't aware of traditions and are not educated about it in schools or by their parents they will skip it entirely and forget, because they are consumed with the internet and technology he said. "Once they forget, it will be hard to bring them back — so it should be something [that is] instilled in them from birth."

Hunting is banned by law in all GCC states to preserve Arabian wildlife, except for a short annual open hunting season in Saudi Arabia, he said. For this reason traditional practices have evolved into recreational sports such as beauty contests and racing competitions, he added.

Yet it becomes apparent that in a rapidly evolving nation, it is people like Al Ganem who strive to keep a distant memory of Bedouin culture alive in the youth of a globalised nation.

"Whatever happens in the country, Abu Dhabi is still focused on heritage and culture as part of a tradition that will never be lost, because there will always be someone carrying it on and changing the water," he mused.