The Desert Arabian In Its Homeland Today
Part I

By Edouard Al Dahdah

Edouard Al Dahdah offered an extensive report and analysis regarding the indigenous Desert Arabian horses remaining in their areas of origin and adjacent Arabic states at the Institute’s February 2005 Symposium on Preservation. This article, in two parts, is adapted from Mr. Al Dahdah’s presentation. Both parts were previously published in Al Khaima,  the Institute’s magazine (part 1 in vol. II no. 2; part 2 in vol. 3 no. 1) as “The State of Arabian Breeding in its Area of Origin.” This article is copyright by Mr. Al Dahdah and the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse, with all rights reserved.

Today I will not be telling you romantic stories of heroic Bedouin warriors mounted on courageous war mares attacking an enemy camp at dusk. Rather, we’ll be looking at more sobering facts which I hope will alert you to the necessity and urgency of acting to preserve the Desert Arabian horse in its homeland before it is too late. I will begin first with a bit of context and some definitions. The word Bedouin comes from the Arabic bedu, which means “steppe nomads,” as opposed to hadar, the Arabic word for “settled people.” The Bedouin are Arabic-speaking nomadic camel and sheep herders who live within the limits of Arabia Deserta. The Bedouin, and no other group, are the original custodians of the Desert Arabian horse. Arabia Deserta is the homeland of Desert Arabian horses. It is by definition the area of maximum extension of Bedouin nomadic migrations. Wherever these Bedouin used to go looking for pastures and water for their camels and sheep, the horses went with them; where the Bedouin didn’t go, you did not have original Desert Arabian horses.

Historically, raiding was the mainstay of the Bedouin economy. Bedouin either raided each other or invaded settled people. Sometimes the Bedouin overcame their mutual antagonisms and a new factor, often of a religious nature, caused them to unite and burst out of the desert to conquer neighboring settled areas. This has happened repeatedly in the course of history. The most significant such occurrence was in the seventh century, under the Prophet Muhammad when Bedouin armies — united by a new religion, Islam — poured out of Arabia Deserta and conquered the whole area of the world between Spain and China. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Bedouin united under the banner of a reformed creed of Islam, Wahhabism, and created the first Wahhabi state. Yet another outburst took place in the twentieth century, under Ibn Saud, the founder of the second Wahhabi state.

So there were times when the Bedouin left Arabia Deserta and invaded other areas of the Arab world and beyond. We therefore need to distinguish between Arabia Deserta, which is the area of the Arab world that constitutes the homeland of the Bedouin (and therefore of the Desert Arabian horse as well), and the other Arab areas, mostly populated by settled people, that are not original to the Bedouin and their Desert Arabian horses. The importance of this distinction will become obvious later in the course of this discussion.

Arabia Deserta was for 400 years, more or less, directly under the control of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the British and French colonial powers took over the dying Ottoman Empire, and carved Arabia Deserta into a number of new countries separated by artificial borders, not more than virtual straight lines running across the desert. However, from a geographical, historical, cultural, ethnic, and economic point of view, Arabia Deserta is one single entity. It includes all of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, and most of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Oman. You can still find desert-bred Arabian horses, bred by the Bedouin, all over Arabia Deserta. Other Arab countries — Egypt (excluding the Sinai Peninsula and directly adjoining areas), Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the Sudan, Mauritania, Lebanon, Palestine, as well as the state of Israel (excluding the Negev and some parts of Upper Galilee, in which Bedouin populations are present) — are not part of Arabia Deserta and do not qualify as homelands of the Desert Arabian horse. Certainly, some of the best Arabian horses today are bred in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, which are not original homelands of the Desert Arabian horse. But the ancestors of these horses were imported to these countries from Arabia Deserta, just as they were imported to Britain, France, or the United States.

During the past century, all these countries of Arabia Deserta went through enormous transformations that led to the disappearance of the nomadic lifestyle. The nomads of Arabia Deserta (the Bedouin) are now settled. They live in houses equipped with electricity, air conditioning, and telephones; their sons and daughters go to school, where they study medicine and computer engineering. Trucks and cars have long replaced camels and horses as means of transportation, and national identities — Saudi, Kuwaiti, Syrian, etc. — have superseded (but not completely overtaken) former tribal identities (Ruwaili from Ruwalah, Shammari from Shammar, Mutairi from Mutair, etc.). A young man from the Shammar born in Syria will view himself as Syrian and Shammari, while his Kuwaiti-born first cousin will identify himself as Kuwaiti and Shammari. Their fathers still rode horses in the desert, and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers participated in tribal wars against other Bedouin.

Today’s Bedouin are very proud of that heritage, as can be witnessed by the flourishing of Web sites and chat rooms in Arabic on the Internet dedicated to the discussion of Bedouin heroes, tribal genealogies, and all things Bedouin (although not much is mentioned about Desert Arabian horses, and the little mentioned is from Arabic translations of the writings of Western travelers; one example is the Mutayr tribe’s official Web site: http://www.mutair.net).

The impact of modernity on Desert Arabian horse-breeding has been catastrophic. The grounds for maintaining Arabian horses in Arabia Deserta were economic (as a means of transportation), military (as a war machine), and social (as a source of prestige), and all three ceased to exist by the 1960s. With the disappearance of these reasons, the very existence of the Desert Arabian horse was threatened.

In addition to the intrusion of modernity into Bedouins’ lives, other factors have affected Arabia Deserta: Droughts have had devastating effects on camel and sheep herds, and have forced many tribes to settle or relocate to another area or country. The 1948-1952 drought years were particularly deadly, with camel herds in Syria reduced by up to 70 percent. Wars between neighboring countries (Iraq and Kuwait, North and South Yemen) or civil wars within a country (Jordan 1970, Iraq now) and underlying tensions in a strategic and politically troubled area have also contributed to the decline in Arabian horse breeding.

Americans and other Westerners were indeed fortunate to have imported most of their Desert Arabian horses from Arabia Deserta before and during these transformations, allowing them to maintain and expand the number of horses tracing exclusively to horses imported directly from Arabia Deserta. The sad truth is that, as we shall see, not much remains of that beautiful horse in Arabia Deserta itself.

Let’s now turn to reviewing the state of Desert Arabian horse breeding in the countries that constitute its original homeland: Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, and the six Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).

Desert Arabians in Yemen

There is a clear tendency in Arab townsfolk tradition (as opposed to Bedouin tradition) to trace back everything perceived as ‘ancient’ and ‘authentic’ to Yemen, from folksongs to tribal genealogies. That is probably why the Desert Arabian horse is thought by many non-Bedouin Arabs to originate in Yemen, while Bedouin tradition ascribes this horse to the area of Nejd in central Arabia. Most of present-day Yemen was known as Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) by the ancient Romans, to distinguish it from Arabia Deserta. The fertile valleys, the mountains covered with snow, and the large river valleys (wadis in Arabic) earned Yemen this beautiful name. The rest of Yemen, including the northernmost provinces of al-Jawf and Sa’ada, as well as the Western Tihama provinces and part of eastern Hadramawt, are part of Arabia Deserta per se.

A recent business trip to Yemen allowed me to learn that the great tribal confederations there still own a good number of desert-bred Arabian horses. The current government-supported Sheykh of one the largest such confederations, the Baqeel, owns about 40 Arabians, and he has apparently gifted one of those to the previous U.S. ambassador to his country. Another smaller tribe, the Juhannam, located in the Tihamah coastal desert on the Red Sea, is said to still keep relatively significant numbers (several dozen) of Arabian horses. A pretty bay mare I saw in the streets of San’aa, the capital, was said to come from this tribe. Such short trips are by no means sufficient to yield enough information about horse breeding in any country, and it is a heresy at this stage for me to say or write anything definitive about Arabian horses in Yemen. All I can say for now is that one peculiar feature of the Arabian horses of Yemen is that they don’t seem to have strains in the way the Bedouin of Northern, Eastern, and Central Arabia understand them — as family names for horses transmitted through dam lines (matrilineal descent).

Desert Arabians in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates

Princely and ‘sheykhly’ families in these small oil-rich Arab countries still keep small numbers of Desert Arabian lines, probably not more than a couple dozen horses registered by World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO) in each country. There may be a few more unregistered horses in the hands of other individuals. The Qatar ruling family keeps a few original desert horses mostly from the Wadnan and Hamdani strains. The Sultanate of Oman was an important provider of Desert Arabians to the regional powers (Egypt) and the global ones (Britain, often through India). I cannot verify the number of Desert Arabian horses originating from Oman that are currently in the hands of the ruling family.

The UAE ruling Sheykhs have a few Desert Arabians from the Tuwaisan and Jellabi strains, whose ancestors were received as gifts from the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain. There have always been, and there continue to be, frequent exchanges of such gifts between the ruling families of these four states, plus Bahrain.

Starting from the 1950s and ’60s, many Bedouin Sheykhs (the majority from the Anazah confederation) left Syria as a result of the socialist agricultural reform policies adopted by the government, which sought to confiscate the vast agricultural estates of these Sheykhs-turned-landowners.

A number of these Sheykhs — especially those who, for one reason or another, were not on good terms with Saudi Arabia, the other major recipient of disaffected Syrian and Iraqi tribes — moved to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates where their prestige and noble lineage guaranteed them a warm welcome and large subsidies from local rulers, who also granted them citizenship. Many Bedouin clans followed their Sheykhs into this new “Arabian Far West” where job opportunities deriving from the oil windfall abound. Some of these clans took their camel herds and horses with them. So these Gulf states ended up with some Desert Arabian horses from Northern Arabia Deserta (the part known as the Syrian Desert). Ancillary to these events, the horse export market from Syria to the Gulf Countries flourished, and, as oil revenues skyrocketed throughout the 1970s, reports abounded of Qatari, Kuwaiti, and Emirati Sheykhs/businessmen flying back to Syria to obtain Desert Arabian horses — and Arabian hawks, camels, and goats — from the Syrian Desert.

Desert Arabians in Bahrain

Many Western preservation breeders are more or less familiar with the Desert Arabian horses of Bahrain. The writings and regular reports of foreign visitors to this little archipelago have popularized the living Bahraini herd. More recently, WAHO held its conference there, allowing more people to visit the country and learn more about its horses.

The Royal Stud of Bahrain now keeps a nice and informative Web site about its herd of Desert Arabians at http://www.bahrainroyalstud.com/arabhorse.htm. One can refer to the Web site for up-to-date information about the number of extant Bahrani strains, their history, and photos and videos of representatives of each strain. Additional Bahraini Desert Arabian horses are in the hands of other members of the Bahrain Royal family, especially the current King’s uncles, which do not appear on this Web site.

I will defer a more detailed discussion of the status of Arabian horses in Bahrain, including its fragility and the challenges it may face in the future, to another venue. Suffice it to say here that the Desert Arabian herd of Bahrain, with its twenty-plus different strains and relative genetic diversity, is today, along with the Tunisian and Syrian herds, the main hope for outcrossing Egyptian-heavy and inbred Desert Arabian lines in Western countries, and that Bahraini horsemen are aware of the importance of this priceless heritage.

Desert Arabians in Saudi Arabia

According to Bedouin tradition, the areas of the Arabian Peninsula which constitute the present Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the cradle of the Desert Arabian horse. They are also home to most of the horse-breeding tribes. Starting from the first decade of the last century and up to the 1930s, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (known to Arabs as Ibn Saud), whose family had ruled the greater part of the Arabian Peninsula for most of the nineteenth century, was able to crystallize the energy of the Bedouin tribes. Until then, the Bedouin had been focused on inter-tribal warfare and factionalism, and Ibn Saud was able to turn this energy from a force of division to a force of unification. Ibn Saud united most Arabian tribes (Mutayr, Atayba, al-Dhafir, al-Ajman, Harb, al-Suhul, Qahtan, Subei’, Bani Khaled, al-Dawasir, Bani Hajr, al-Murrah, al-Sherarat, al-Hawazin, Bani Atiyah, Juhaynah, Balii, plus some sections of the Anazah and Shammar) under the flag of the Wahhabi creed, a rigorist doctrine of Islam.

After their adoption of Wahhabism, the tribes became, as is often the case with new converts to any creed, quite extreme in their observance of the new doctrine. Previously, most Bedouin were, in Western terms, “non-denominational Muslims.” They didn’t fast regularly (rather, a constant state of their harsh nomadic lifestyle), they were influenced by all sorts of rites and superstitions, and they did not diligently go on the annual pilgrimage, the Hajj. Ibn Saud organized the tribes into a regular army (the Ikhwan, Arabic for “Brothers,” as in brothers in religion) that conquered the territory of what is now Saudi Arabia. They would have gone much farther if the British and their own king had not stopped them. The British hastily imposed boundaries between the lands conquered by Ibn Saud and the neighboring British protectorates of Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait.

The Ikhwan continued raiding in Iraqi and Jordanian territory, and Ibn Saud went through the greatest difficulties before he finally crushed the rebellion, arrested its main leaders, disbanded the whole Ikhwan, and took away their primary military weapon and means of transportation: the Desert Arabian horse. He had the horses and camels of the Bedouin tribes collected and concentrated in his stud farms and accelerated the settlement of the tribes.

Starting from the 1960s, the oil boom and the resulting development of modern means of transportation and communication brought about immense changes to the Kingdom, with consequences on its economy and society that are still being felt today. Saudi Arabia was increasingly becoming a magnet for Bedouin and non-Bedouin individuals from all over the Arab world and beyond, a sort of Far West at the time of the Gold Rush in California, for whoever was seeking rapid wealth and seemingly unlimited opportunities. The Saudis were themselves becoming more and more exposed to the rest of the Arab countries.

During the same period, a number of partbred Arabian horses from Iraq and Lebanon made their way to Saudi Arabia for racing purposes. These horses with high percentages of English Thoroughbred blood had already overtaken the racetracks of Beirut, Baghdad, and major venues in Egypt, almost completely driving out the Desert Arabian that had hitherto formed the bulk of the racehorses at these tracks until the mid-1950s. Some of these partbred horses found their way into Saudi royal studs. The concentration of very large numbers of Saudi Arabian desert horses in a small number of stud farms increased their vulnerability and the odds of contamination by foreign blood.

Not all the royal herds were equally affected. It is said that at least two Saudi princes keep a fair number of Desert Arabians from old desert bloodlines, predominantly from the Hamdani and the Swayti al-Farm strains. Outside the royal herds, it is relatively cumbersome to sort out which tribes and clans have kept their horses pure and which have not. Fortunately, the vast majority of the horses that came to the USA from Saudi Arabia arrived before these changes took place, or just as the country was undergoing its rapid modernization, and so some of this blood is preserved in the USA until today.

Iraq

Iraq is unique among Arab countries in that it is the only one with the potential to become a regional power. It has the human, historical, agricultural, and water potential of Egypt, combined with the oil, wealth, and strategic potential of Saudi Arabia.

Historically, the pashas, the land-owning aristocracy, and the wealthy merchants of Iraq have played roles similar to their Egyptian counterparts (the pashas) in Desert Arabian breeding. In addition to its settled population, Iraq is today home to the largest Bedouin tribes, now entirely settled: large sections of the Anazah, most of the Shammar, the Jubur, the Tai, and all of the Dulaym, the Muntafiq, the Bani Lam, the Ubayd, the Juhaysh, and many others live there. Some even claim that up to 40 percent of Iraq’s population is composed of Bedouin tribes, often settled in areas with names now familiar to most of us. The Shammar and the Tai make up a large part of the northern Iraqi town of al-Mawsil (Mossoul). The Zoba tribe of the Shammar confederation form a third of the population of now infamous al-Fallujah and all of the town of Abu Ghraib. The Dulaym are settled in Al-Qaim and Ramadi. Many of these tribes have been breeding Arabian horses for centuries and have continued doing so until very recently.

It seems that it is Iraq’s sad fate to be invaded by the dominating global power of the time. It was invaded by the Mongols, the Ottomans, the British, and now the Americans (with the British yet again). The British army invaded Iraq for the first time during World War I in 1914 and ultimately withdrew, leaving tens of thousands of English Thoroughbreds and Australian Walers behind. These horses eventually mixed with the local horse population, a good part of which was of Desert Arabian stock. This resulted in a standard breed of horses that is known today all around the Middle East as the ‘Iraqi.’ These horses were exported all over the Middle East — to Lebanon (sometimes making their way from Lebanon to Syria), Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, and had considerable racing success wherever they went. They were also widely used for breeding in all these countries.

Inside Iraq, the Iraqi government bought many of these partbred Arabs for its state-owned stud farms, and made sure these horses were distributed in stallion depots all across Iraq. Their impact on areas inhabited by Bedouin horse-breeding tribes was simply devastating. A stallion depot in the village of Al-Bughah in the Iraqi Jazirah (Upper Mesopotamia) located in the midst of the dira (nomadizing area) of the Juhaysh inflicted huge damage upon the Desert Arabian horse population of that tribe and neighboring ones. Many Bedouin would bring mares to these government stallion depots and breed them a horse that was usually a partbred because it was convenient or simply out of ignorance. Today, more than 90 percent of the Iraqi studbook accepted by WAHO is composed of such partbred horses. At the time the Iraqi studbook was in the works, many Desert Arabian horses were NOT registered, either because the registering authorities discarded them or because the Bedouin refused to register them, for fear of confiscation by the Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi Bedouin kept breeding these horses until the beginning of the 1990s, after which the survival of the families took precedence over the survival of their horses.

Another complicating factor, quite separate from the problem of Iraqi partbreds with English Thoroughbred blood, is the close interaction of Arab tribes in the North of Iraq with Kurdish and Turcoman (settled) tribes that keep other indigenous strains (Kurdish, Turcoman, Tazi, etc.). In northern Iraq, Kurdish and Arab areas overlap; there are many adjoining villages — one Arab, one Kurdish — and the horses often share the same pasture. Yet another aggravating factor was that, following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraqi military officers (most of them of Jubur, Tai, Dulaym, and Shammar tribal backgrounds) brought back many horses as war prizes from the WAHO-approved registry in Kuwait. The vast majority of these Kuwaiti horses were not Desert Arabian. These horses — often with Crabbet, Polish, and other non-Desert Arabian blood — were then mixed with the local Iraqi stock throughout the nineties.

It seems impossible that amidst this grim background, some Desert Arabian horses would have survived in Iraq uncontaminated. Nevertheless, in the face of all these hardships, limited numbers of Bedouin clans have kept many unregistered Desert Arabians pure, especially in the North (among the Jubur, the Tai, and the Shammar) and the Center of the country (the Ageidat). There are, no doubt, some gems still to be discovered there. I would estimate there are perhaps 500-1000 Desert Arabian horses remaining in Iraq, most of them not registered in the Iraqi studbook accepted by WAHO. To find them, it is necessary to go to the clans and families who have been breeding Desert Arabian horses for a long time and transmitting the horses from father to son. These are the people most likely to have remained adamant about the purity of the horses of their forefathers.

Syria

Syria is today home to most of the Anazah tribes and to some of the Shammar and other major horse-breeding tribes. About 2000 Desert Arabian horses from 40 different strains are registered in the WAHO-approved studbook, most of them Bedouin-bred. A second group of about 300 Bedouin horses that had been left out of the initial registration process was recently approved by WAHO. Together, these two Syrian studbooks account for the largest and most diverse group of Desert Arabian horses remaining in Arabia Deserta today (the Bahraini group is a close second).

The Syrian horse registering commission did quite a decent job of registering the horses of the Bedouin and resisted various pressures to register non-Desert Arabian horses of doubtful background. The pictures appended to this article show the huge variety found in Desert Arabian horses now living in Syria. All the horses from Syria pictured are either desert bred, or their sires and dams or all four grandparents are desert bred. In some instances they were still bred by the same Shammar and Anazah Bedouin tribes that gave these horses their strain names some 150 to 200 hundred years ago (al-Khdilat for the Kuhaylan Khdili, Ibn Nowag for the Kuhalyan Nowag, Ibn Sahlan for the Ubayyan Seheili, al-Maraziq for the Saglawi Marzakani, Ibn Jlaidan for the Kuhaylan Ibn Jlaidan, etc).

In other instances, the horse’s ancestors were acquired by sheep-breeding tribes (called Shawaya), the names of which are less associated (at least by Westerners) with horse-breeding: the Agaydat, the Naim, the Bu Shaaban, etc. In the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the sheep-breeding tribes have grown wealthier than their more powerful, “more Bedouin” camel-breeding neighbors, mainly because they were closer to the best pastures and water than the camel-breeding tribes who were the traditional horse-breeding tribes. When the Syrian government (and the French mandate before it) adopted the policy of settling the tribes, those tribes who were already herding sheep (which need more water and pastures than camels) or engaging in agriculture for part of the year obviously had an incumbent’s advantage over the camel-herding tribes and were successful in holding the areas they had been cultivating. Many of the Anazah camel-breeding tribes chose the exit option and moved to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Some took their horses and camels with them (see above), but others kept them in the hands of their sheep-breeding neighbors. Thus, in many cases the sheep-breeding tribes ended up with some of the most valuable Desert Arabian horses.

All these horses are an invaluable resource for Desert Arabian breeders worldwide, who need to encourage Syrian Desert Arabian breeders to breed their horses to horses of similar or equally pure origins and not to horses of Polish, Crabbet, Russian, or French bloodlines, something which the Syrian breeders are increasingly tempted to do. The Syrian studbook is today where the USA studbook was almost a hundred years ago. The overwhelming majority (about 85-90 percent) of the horses are Desert Arabian. It will take concerted efforts to keep this situation from deteriorating.

Jordan

Only horses owned by the Jordanian Royal family were registered in the Jordanian WAHO-approved studbook, and none of those horses alive today are Desert Arabians.

The original Desert Arabian horses of the Royal Jordanian Stud have been bred with Crabbet and Spanish and other non-Desert Arabian bloodlines for about forty years now. Nevertheless, many unregistered horses are owned by Bedouin of the Huwaytat and Bani Sakhr tribes. Very few of these can qualify as pure Desert Arabians. The famous Ruwalah tribe of the Anazah tribal confederation has all but lost its Desert Arabian horses. Some years ago the Ruwalah brought ten of their horses to Lebanon for racing; these horses had 25 percent or more English Thoroughbred blood.

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