Enthusiasts gather for King Abdulaziz Falconry Festival in Riyadh

Last year, the festival won a place in the Guinness World Records in the largest falcon racing tournament category

Falcon at King Abdul Aziz Festival. Courtesy Saudi Press Agency

Young people and experts in falconry gathered in Riyadh for the third King Abdulaziz Falconry Festival, which will run until December 12.

Organised by the Saudi Falcons Club, the festival offers more than 22.7 million Saudi riyals ($6.05m) in cash prizes is allocated.

The top 10 winners of Al Malwah 400-metre competition are chosen at the end of daily rounds of competitions and finalists will be selected to compete for the King Abdulaziz Cup.

Last year, the festival won a place in the Guinness World Records in the largest falcon racing tournament category. Saudi Arabia was listed by Unesco as one of the 11 top countries home to many species of falcon.

“This is a moment of pride for us. We are honoured to be a part of Saudi Vision 2030 where the leadership wants our youth and the world to be able to learn and celebrate our culture. I wait for this event more than anything else. I cannot wait to see who wins the finals and will be coming back with my brothers during the festival,” said Mosaed Alhamra, a enthusiast who has attended the event since its launch.

Saudi Falcons Club (SFC), the third edition of the King Abdul Aziz Falconry Festival is being held in Malham, north of Riyadh and will run until December 12. Mariam Nihal for The National

Falcon breeding and hunting with falcons has long been a part of Arab history.

“It is an art form, one that takes skill and patience, we have been breeding and preserving our beautiful falcons for ever. Our region serves as a key migratory route for various bird species, especially falcons that are recognised internationally as endangered, we are honoured to protect them,” said Saad Numaili, a visitor to the festival.

Female enthusiasts and collectors were also present.

"You would think it is a male-dominated sport or activity, it is not the case. If you look deeper, we, the women, as young girls have been living with, raised with and grown with these beautiful species,"  said Ghalia, a falcon enthusiast in Riyadh.

"We know how to train them and look after them, which is such an honour to be honest. I have the freedom to come out now and promote our cultural heritage thanks to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who encourages women's participation. I am happy to share it with the world."

According to the SFC, the kingdom complies with international conventions on the protection of falcons from extinction and the protection of migratory birds.

Hunting the birds of prey has been banned since 1975. SFC also launched the Hadad programme to make falconry sustainable, preserving a rare breed – shaheen (peregrine) falcons – by releasing them into their wild habitat, to further strengthen the kingdom's role in protecting the environment and wildlife.

Last month, Faleh Al Oudwani and his son Nasser donated 10 falcons to strengthen the cause from the 20 they acquired with a value of approximately 1.5 million riyals.

“You won’t believe the prices of some falcons, they can cost up to millions of riyals. It is like a status symbol. People go to great lengths to obtain the rare breeds and treat them like royalty. The Hadad programme is a great cause to help ensure falconry’s sustainability and protecting the future of the species,” said Abdullah Dosary, a falcon trader and enthusiast.

Last month, Abdul Rahman Al Fadli, Saudi Arabia's minister of environment, water and agriculture, handed over the first passport issued for a falcon. This was through a new electronic platform, Fateri, as part of the National Centre for Wildlife Development plans to streamline procedures for issuing licences for import, export and other activities related to wildlife.