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Inglorious Bustards

by Ejaz Haider
Shankar S.

Shankar S.

Does ornithology really determine Pakistan’s Gulf policy?

I don’t know anything about the Houbara Bustard except that it is a bird, it migrates like most birds do, I suppose, and that Arabs from the Gulf, the Royals to be precise, our avowed brethren, like to hunt it.

This was of course until now. What I thought was just a bird, some might even say an exotic bird, is much more than that. It runs our foreign policy. Well, not all of it but the one that binds us with our brothers-in-faith in the Gulf. Some nitpickers would object to my statement and point out that foreign policy is actually run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that the bustard is a pillar of that policy.

Now, I am neither an architect nor a structural engineer, but basic sense tells me that a building, to be solidly positioned, must have more than a single pillar, besides of course having a solid foundation. If my contention is accepted, then we need to examine the MoFA’s review petition to the Supreme Court of Pakistan to reconsider the court’s earlier ban on the hunting of Houbara Bustards because the bird constitutes a pillar of our Gulf policy.

The MoFA petition makes four broad points: one, that courts have normally stayed away from interfering with the executive’s prerogative to formulate and implement foreign policy. This is a good point. In most countries of the world, that is standard practice for the most part. It is grounded in the fact that several aspects of a state’s foreign policy cannot be entirely revealed and therefore the executive is in the best position to formulate the policy and must not be hampered in that job. There’s also the fact that the broad parameters of foreign policy do not undergo any drastic changes because they are based on certain determinants—geographical, historical, geopolitical and geoeconomic.

The ministry’s second point expresses the fear that Pakistan’s relations with the Gulf states, already at a low, could be further damaged by this ban. In its review petition, MoFA argues that “falconry is a significant feature of Pakistan’s relations with Middle Eastern countries. Falconry is not merely a sport for Arabs, but also one of their most cherished customs and recognized as a cultural heritage by UNESCO.”

Leaving aside the fact that the term ”Middle Eastern” has been used loosely because the issue is specific to Gulf Royals, the ministry seems to be pleading that such is the vital importance of the Royals descending on Pakistan with their falcons that if Pakistan refused to be a good sport for their sport, Islamabad’s relations with these states will further deteriorate.

I request the reader’s indulgence on this point because this is in fact the central point of the review petition. Let’s also park it for a while.

The third point in the review petition references provincial wildlife laws and states that “provincial governments have statutory power to remove any category of wildlife from the schedule of protected animals.” Also, that in “Balochistan, the houbara bustard is a game animal under the Balochistan Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act 2014 and the hunting of this species is permissible under the law, subject to certain conditions.”

Therefore, argues the review petition, the Supreme Court, by banning the hunting of the bird, has gone beyond “the scope of law since the vires of provincial wildlife laws were admittedly never in question.”

Finally, the review petition travels into the domain of wildlife conservation and biodiversity and argues that International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standards clearly stipulate that “sustainable use of wildlife is central to its preservation and protection” and no artificial distinction can be created between people and nature.

The first point, as I noted, is an important one and refers to accepted practice. Yet, practice does not preclude the media, the civil society and the courts, when something comes out in the open, to weigh it and discuss and criticize it, if need be.

The third point is legal-technical and it is for the counsels and the court to determine its strength or weakness.

The fourth point about conservation and biodiversity is important because the Supreme Court, in its earlier judgment, banned the hunting of the bird on the grounds that it is an endangered species. Presumably, if it can be proven by experts that such is not the case, the court might overturn the earlier decision. That, again, is for the conservation experts and the court to decide.

It’s the second point that interests me, which claims that the hunting of the Houbara Bustard forms a central feature of our relations with the Gulf Royals. The obvious question is, what is so important about a relationship, which is, by MoFA’s own admission in the review petition, so tenuous and rests on birds—falcons and the Houbara—rather than being multidimensional?

A conventional argument refers to our workforce in the Gulf and the billions of dollars in remittances they generate. Another is about oil on concessionary rates. Both are important, for sure. However, even more important is what we do for those states—or not. Because the way these arguments are made, it seems that the Gulf states extend us their largesse merely for hunting the Houbara in Balochistan. That to me, as a student of international relations, sounds very dubious.

But there’s more. My own initial investigations that required speaking with officials reveal the following issues.

Allotment of areas for hunting to various Gulf rulers and influential personalities has serious implications for flora and fauna in Pakistan, an issue that, interestingly enough, has been raised by agencies within the government. Also, some years ago, guidelines were formulated and issued, limiting the number of birds, area and the restoration of structures impacted due to the presence of such large princely entourages in certain areas. These guidelines, I am told, could never be implemented because there was no penalty for violators. Since the visitors have immunity, they cannot be arrested and tried under local laws.

Then there’s the problem of security. An official told me that most of these Gulf rulers bring Indian staff with them in large numbers, “not just in dozens but in the hundreds.” No security checks are allowed on anyone accompanying them. The government of Balochistan, in particular, has been protesting the allotment of large chunks of areas for hunting. Also, despite orders by various high courts, the federal government has continued the practice, the same four-decade practice to which the MoFA review petition refers.

So, how does this happen? Short answer: the Prime Minister’s Office oversees the allocation!

I am also told that MoFA is in the forefront of this because the federal government (read: PMO) wants it to. That should explain the story.

The PMO was also all too eager to kowtow to the Saudi royals on the issue of sending troops to Yemen. Mercifully, and not least ironically, it was the military that held the prime minister’s hand.

And now we have the story of the birds with MoFA locked into this absurdity. Perhaps, we should start enlisting ornithologists to run our Gulf policy.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

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1 comment

afiasalam October 20, 2015 - 12:18 pm

Interestingly it is the Chair of the CITES, Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species that is the Competent Authority to grant permits… NOT the FO!


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