First woman competes at Middle East's top falconry show

Saudi Arabia's Athari Alkhaldi was slated to participate last year, but her bird refused to take flight

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Athari Al Khaldi stands out among a sea of men and falcons at the Middle East's top falconry competition: the first Saudi woman to qualify and participate in the event.

"With my participation, I proved I am here, that women can join this field, that it's not only restricted to men," she said, alongside her falcon Ma'aned.

Falconry is an important part of the desert heritage of Arabs of Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries going back thousands of years.

The two-week King Abdulaziz Falconry Festival, which gathers more than 4,000 falcons from the Gulf and further afield, honoured Ms Al Khaldi's presence with an award for the first female to make a qualifying competition flight with her bird.

Ms Al Khaldi first participated last year, but her bird refused to take flight. Determined, she returned this year and her bird successfully flew.

"Dealing with the birds, it is not easy, they are sensitive and need special treatment," she said. It requires patience and persistence, she said.

"Falconry has been a well-known heritage since ancient times. We take pride in it," she said.

The festival, in its third-year, has 22.7 million Saudi riyals ($6m) in prize money to give out during beauty and flying contests.

Depending on the breed, falcon flight speeds can exceed 300 kilometres per hour.

Ms Al Khaldi said her passion for falcons first began 10 years ago and she has been developing her skills with the hunting birds ever since.

Festival spokesman Waleed Al Taweel said the festival wants to promote the falconry culture among women and men.

"Honouring [Ms Al Khaldi] is a continuation of the kingdom's efforts to empower women in all areas," he said of the participation award given to her.