The ancient tradition of falconry is still practiced by Emirati men. When their birds get sick or injured, they bring them to German veterinarian Margit Müller, who runs the region's most respected falcon hospital.
Sweihan Road-Al Shamkha, some 30 minutes by car from Abu Dhabi City: The eight-lane highway leads straight into the desert. In the rear-view mirror, the skyscrapers, modern shopping centers and luxurious residential districts of the city disappear into the distance.
Visitors to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital compound are transported into a different world. Everything revolves around these big birds of prey.
Up to 11,000 falcons are treated here each year. And every falcon owner knows the boss: 49-year-old Margit "Doctora" Müller from Germany, who has been the hospital director since 2001.
"Falcons are fascinating because they are such independent characters and the way they express themselves is absolutely unique and magical," says Müller.
Complete with intensive care unit and operating room
The clinic is considered the leading center in the world for falcon medical care. It is equipped with everything a hospital requires for treating humans, except "that our patients have wings and do not have TV hook-ups in their rooms," Müller quips.
The hospital has an operating room and a quarantine area, a lab, an x-ray facility and even an intensive care unit.
Many falcons come for routine check-ups or when they are not eating properly or have infections. Falcons do pick up infections easily, says Müller, because when they hunt down their prey, "then it's usually the last straggling duck of a flock and it is usually ill." Other ailments include broken legs or feathers, or skin wounds.
Falconry a bridge between tradition and modernity
Falconry is one of the most popular hobbies among Emiratis. In the past, falcons helped the Bedouins survive in the desert. In Arab culture, they are not house pets, but are considered members of the family which are fostered and cared for, Müller explains.
"They live with the family, have their own perch in the living room, and many even sleep in the bedrooms of their owners," she says. With the rapid economic upswing of the Arab Gulf States catapulting the Bedouins into a modern, highly technical world within just 50 years, the falcons have become a bridge between this new-found modernity and their old traditions.
The origins of falconry lie in the Persian-Arab region and the pastime did not migrate to Europe until the Christian Crusades. Falconry in Europe celebrated its heyday in the Middle Ages. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II penned the famous book in the mid-13th century, "The Art of Falconry." At that time, falconry was a sport among kings - entertainment for the aristocracy.
On the Arabian Peninsula, however, falconry had a quite different significance. Before crude oil made the Emiratis rich, their bill of fare was rather limited. They ate dates, fish and drank camel milk. Thus, they began using falcons, who can nosedive at over 300 kilometers per hour, for hunting meat.
Falconry as a cultural asset
Falconers were - and are - from all levels of society: from the families of monarchs to those of the humble Bedouins. Falconry is one of the few ways Emiratis have of returning to their roots. "With falcons, Emiratis can maintain their identity and uphold their values," Müller says.
It's no coincidence that it was the United Arab Emirates who took the initiative in seeking a spot for falconry on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In 2010, it garnered that title. With the list, UNESCO seeks to preserve and cultivate cultural heritage that is endangered by modern developments.
Tradition and modernity are strange bed fellows in Abu Dhabi. It is home to one of the largest solar power stations in the world, to the Ferrari World entertainment park and soon, to its very own Louvre Museum.
At the same time, a patriarchal, constitutional monarchy still reigns here. And falconry was and remains in the grip of men.
"Bedouins used to believe that the huge falcons must be males and always gave them male names," Müller notes.
Modern medicine proved otherwise, demonstrating that the big falcons are actually females and about a third larger than the males. This is a rare exception in the animal world. "Bedouins still exist today who do not want to believe that; it's hard for them to understand," she says.
A woman's career in a man's world
Margit Müller was born near Ulm, Germany and trained as a veterinarian in Germany and France. First writing about foot diseases among falcons for her doctorate degree, she then moved to Dubai for practical training. People were so impressed with her work that she received a surprising offer to establish a falcon clinic in Abu Dhabi.
Given the male-dominated society, it was no easy task. "The falconers were not accustomed to a woman being a veterinarian, and the employees here were not used to having a woman as their boss," she says. "But one thing was clear to me: I was not going to allow myself to be driven away, and I was going to be successful no matter what!"
Müller has meanwhile become a falcon expert famous well beyond the borders of the Emirates, and is equipped with both an expertise and a data bank that is unparalleled around the world. Though it took some time for the Emiratis to trust the lively German, she has become her own kind of respected institution in Abu Dhabi and is considered a luminary in her area of expertise.
People certainly like coming to her for a falcon check-up before they take flight somewhere. After all, since they hold their very own passports, the animals are permitted on board the state airline Etihad. Naturally, they also receive their very own seats.