Explore the history of the Bedouin by paying a visit to these respected animals
Salukis are a traditional part of Bedouin culture, a graceful, strong and smart dog famed for its hunting prowess. Andy Mills visits the Arabian Saluki Center in Abu Dhabi to sniff out more.
The Bedouin culture is awash with fascinating stories, crafts and traditions, but perhaps it is their relationship with animals that captures the imagination most. Horses, camels and falcons have been crucial to survival in the harsh desert environment, but the role in Bedouin life of a particular breed of dog should not be underestimated.
Near Abu Dhabi International Airport, in the same complex as the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (follow the brown signs), is a centre dedicated to the Saluki breed, a dog similar to a greyhound yet known for their stamina and hunting ability. So capable of hunting in fact that they are able to bring down a small gazelle.
The Arabian Saluki Center was established to honour these incredible dogs and ensure pure lineage through breeding. It also aims to offer advice, training and grooming to Saluki owners and has a guest book signed by numerous visitors, including large groups of school children who have patted and stroked tradition at first hand.
Walking into the reception room, a large painting evokes the lifestyle that once was; two Bedouin men next to their horses, a falcon perched ready for the hunt and loyal Saluki by their masters, one relaxing, the other two attentive with eyes already scanning the desert behind for the day’s hunt. It’s undoubtedly an enchanting image.
‘They can hunt with the falcon,’ explains our guide for the day, Suleiman Shemali. ‘The falcon will hover over the prey and the Saluki will then go in and catch it.’ Some have even suggested that falcons would swoop on larger prey and attack the eyes, while the Salukis ran in to attack the body, but Suleiman’s not so sure. He is sure about their speed though. ‘They are very fast, probably capable of 60-70kph.’
The tradition of hunting with Salukis is something that they aim to ensure does not die out, with all of their dogs trained in the art. Outside in the exercise yard is a special circular enclosure, with a separate enclosure running around it. Suleiman explains that once a Saluki reaches six months of age it is put in the central enclosure with one of its parents.
A rabbit is then let loose in the outer circle so that both dogs inside can see it, but can’t catch it. By watching what the parent does, the pup soon learns how to chase after the fast moving bait, developing a keen eye and a sense for hunting. Out in the wild, desert mice, hares, rabbits, foxes and Arabian gazelle would all be on the menu. ‘Once they can do that they may hunt a rabbit in the yard,’ adds Suleiman. ‘A good student will hunt the rabbit and not kill it. It will bring it back alive.’
There are two types of Saluki; feathered and smooth, with the feathered getting their distinction from the longer hair around the ears and the tail. Asked if there’s any other difference, Suleiman is keen to point out that it’s only personal preference that splits the two. Some owners, he says, prefer the look of the feathered Saluki, while people who race or hunt with them tend to go for a smooth, short-haired dog. Perhaps that’s all about aerodynamics.
There is no defining colour to the breed either with the spectrum ranging from black and white to sandy amber. What they do all share though are expressive faces, a regal and athletic stance and an independent air about them, the latter characteristic being something they are famed for. When they hunt they often think for themselves, disappearing out of sight and not always responding to commands as they figure out for themselves what the best course of action is. They do always keep an eye on where their owner is though, so it’s no surprise for a seemingly lost dog to reappear as if nothing has happened.
If you want to see these dogs for yourself then the Arabian Saluki Center is happy to show you around if you call first to arrange a visit. In December, Al Gharbia will also play host to a festival celebrating traditional Bedouin activities, providing the chance to see Saluki dogs in full flight. Arabian Saluki Center, near Abu Dhabi International Airport, behind Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, www.arabiansaluki.ae (02 575 5330).
If you want to learn more about the traditional life and history of Abu Dhabi, then these attractions are the perfect destinations.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
The state-of-the-art facility is an award-winning attraction dedicated to caring and protection of the national emblem of the UAE. In the same location as the Arabian Saluki Center. (02 575 5155).
Zayed Centre for Studies and Research
A fascinating look into the life of the late Sheikh Zayed, in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen district. (02 665 9555).
Hili Archaeological Garden
This archaeological site in Al Ain has remnants of a Bronze Age settlement which was excavated and restored in 1995.