“Cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy”: The Houbara Bustard!

If you thought the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy was managing its relations with the US, China or India, you would be wrong.

In a recent review petition before the Supreme Court of Pakistan to reverse its August 19, 2015 ban on hunting the Houbara bustard, the government of Pakistan has itself stated authoritatively that inviting Arab dignitaries to hunt the bird in Pakistan was a “cornerstone of foreign policy”.

Such an assertion would no doubt make the great practitioners of foreign policy like Lord Palmerston, Metternich, Bismarck, et al, squirm in their graves.

The squirming would be justified because what Pakistan has done is to reduce foreign policy to a mockery, straining the credulity of what constitutes national interest and how best it can be served.

In essence, it has announced to the world that the ties of the Islamic world’s only nuclear power with the Arab states are so brittle and farcical that they rest on Arab sheikhs’ wanton killing of the endangered Houbara bustards.

The Houbara bustards, known locally as Tiloor, migrate from Mongolia, Siberia and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) towards their breeding areas in Pakistan during November and December. Intensive falcon hunting in the Arab states has nearly rendered the Houbara extinct there and so the focus of the Arabs has shifted to Pakistan. The Arabs believe that the meat of the bustard contains aphrodisiacal properties while hunting with falcons is a cherished Arab tradition considered the sport of kings. Incidentally, hunting with falcons and hawks is banned in Pakistan.

A survey carried out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature showed that there had been a “sharp decrease” in the number of Houbara bustards with only around 97,000 left globally. Pakistan is a signatory to both the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, (Bonn Convention) and the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora & Fauna (CITES) where the Houbara bustard is listed as an endangered migratory bird.

Matters came to a head when a 2014 report published Balochistan Forest and Wildlife department was leaked to the media. According to the report, in January 2014, Saudi prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, Governor of Tabuk province, killed 2,100 Houbara bustards during a three-week safari in Chaghi, Balochistan against the special permit of only 100 birds.

In November 2014, the Balochistan High Court imposed a ban on the hunting of the Houbara bustard and cancelled all licences. Despite the ban, the same Saudi prince was given another permit in early 2015. The government claimed that the Prince was not hunting but was only on a ‘diplomatic mission’- to oversee development activities and inspect Arab-funded development schemes. The details of the so-called development schemes were never disclosed.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan, to whom the case was referred, decided on August 19, 2015 to impose a ban on further hunting reminding the government that the country’s laws were not a ‘saleable commodity’ and the issuance of permits to Arab princes was tantamount to surrendering the country’s sovereignty.

The federal government, however, filed a review petition stating that inviting Arab dignitaries to hunt in Pakistan was a “cornerstone of foreign policy”; the ban on falconry hunting of Houbara bustard could further affect the already weakened relations with the Arab states. It added that falconry was the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar and allowing Arab dignitaries to hunt would be pivotal to restoring Pakistan’s deteriorating ties.

Another absurd argument put forward was that ties with the Middle East had a direct impact on livelihood of millions of Pakistani expats living and working in the region, implying that if the Sheikhs were denied, Pakistani expats could be sent back.

The farce doesn’t end here. India had to be in the picture somehow. So in its review petition, the Sindh government claimed India wanted to see a ban on Houbara bustard hunting as foreign dignitaries were investing in Pakistan. Its counsel, Farooq H Naek, who has served as Law Minister of Pakistan as well as Chairman of the Senate contended before the Supreme Court that hunting of Houbaras was intolerable and excruciating for India, which did not want to see Pakistan develop.

Faced with such ‘weighty’ arguments that the Houbara was the ‘cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy’ and the supposed involvement of India, the Supreme Court on January 22, 2016 relented and lifted the ban on hunting the Houbara bustard.

Now that the ban has been lifted and the hapless bird is available for slaughter, would Pakistan’s relations with the Arabs get refurbished?

Indications are not promising; Saudi Arabia has just rejected Pakistan’s mediation efforts to improve its relations with Iran.

The Houbara bustard may feel little joy in being sacrificed at the altar of Pakistan’s foreign policy, but may well have the last laugh.

First published at The Political Indian, 27 January 2016



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