Courting danger

One of the hunting photographs from the Jordan-Iraq border area posted on the internet by Sheikh Nayef of Qatar

The royal families of the Gulf have long had a passion for hunting with falcons in wild and sometimes dangerous places. In recent times, the decline or extinction of suitable prey in their home countries coupled, perhaps, with a hankering for excitement, has led them to places that are increasingly wild and dangerous – places where they may also encounter wild and dangerous people.

In the 1990s, for instance – before the 9/11 attacks – there were numerous reports of royal hunters from the Gulf camping in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden. They didn't, of course, have much taste for bin Laden's austere lifestyle and, according to the reports, often had their own air-conditioned tents and electricity generators flown in.

Among those alleged to have gone hunting with Bin Laden was Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief at the time. Another was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who later became ruler of Dubai.

On at least one occasion these royal visits hampered American attempts to target Bin Laden. A planned airstrike in February 1999 was called off after an Emirati aircraft – apparently connected with a hunting trip – was spotted parked in the vicinity.

In the late 1990s British and American intelligence officials also voiced suspicions that some of the hunt-related flights to and from Afghanistan were being used by unnamed persons as cover for heroin smuggling. 

This background is worth keeping in mind when considering the disappearance of nine Qatari royals last week – apparently kidnapped while on a month-long hunting trip in southern Iraq. The idea of a camping holiday in such a turbulent country would probably strike most people as crazy, and even more so if the campers happened to be members of a particularly wealthy royal family. Anyone who succeeded in abducting them could demand vast sums of money as a ransom or apply serious political pressure on the ruler.

But maybe the missing Qataris didn't see it like that. The fact that senior Gulf figures were able to hunt and hobnob with Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1990s without coming to any harm may have lulled them into a false sense of security.

For the vanished Qataris, however, trips like the one that came to an abrupt end in Iraq last week are not necessarily rare. Photographs posted on the internet show that at least one of the missing royals – Sheikh Nayef bin Eid Mohammed Al Thani – had also been hunting in the Jordanian-Iraqi border area just three months earlier.

Although Sheikh Nayef is reported to have a regular job in the PR department of the Qatari government news agency, Qena, it also seems to afford him plenty of time for travel. In the summer, during Ramadan, he was in Saudi Arabia, apparently for religious purposes. 

In September he was in Jordan, travelling on his "special" royal passport. The visit took him to the countryside around Ruwaished, close to the Iraqi border. Ruwaished marks the start of what journalists have dubbed "the journey of death" along "the highway through hell", where truck drivers set off for Iraq, not knowing if they will ever come back. The Washington Post described it thus:

"It might be the most hairy truck route in the world – a nail-biting, long-haul, 'Mad Max'-style endurance race from the Jordan border through the black heart of Islamic State territory ...

"The truckers’ journey provides a window into a dangerous region that has become even more terrifying. Since the militants took over northern and western Iraq this year, the route has become, the wheelmen say, the highway through hell.

"On the run to Baghdad, drivers face miles of empty, lawless road, prowled by brigands and militias, punctuated by rolling roadblocks operated by Islamic State militants in pickup trucks and purloined Hummers."

Despite the horrors just a few miles down the road, the photos posted on the internet suggest Sheikh Nayef had a fun time in the borderland, hunting with a rifle and sampling some exotic dishes which included grilled sparrows.

He flew back to Qatar, first class, on September 15.