The Desert Arabian in its Homeland today

This article, in two parts, is adapted from a presen­ta­tion I made at the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse’s February 2005 Sympo­sium on Preser­va­tion. 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.” 

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 Arabicbedu, 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 overArabia 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 ofArabia 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:

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 asArabia 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 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 (theIkhwan, 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 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 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.


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.

As we discussed in the initial part of this presen­ta­tion, the Bedouins, and no other group, are the orig­inal custo­dians of the Desert Arabian horse. Arabia Deserta, the home­land of Desert Arabian horses, is by defi­n­i­tion the area of maximum extent of Bedouin nomadic migra­tions. Wher­ever these Bedouins sought pastures for their camels and sheep, the horses went with them; where the Bedouin didn’t go, orig­inal Desert Arabian horses did not exist. I previ­ously discussed the history and current level of knowl­edge regarding remaining indige­nous Desert Arabian horses in the cradle coun­tries of Arabia Deserta, now defined by polit­ical bound­aries as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.

In this second part I will describe the histor­ical context and move­ment of indige­nous Bedouin horses into surrounding Arabic lands — specif­i­cally Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. I don’t know much about the state of Desert Arabian breeding in Israel, Pales­tine, and Libya, three areas I have not visited, and so have excluded them from this overview. Taken together, the few remaining indige­nous horses in the cradle and surrounding coun­tries present a condi­tion that compels us to act with urgency to preserve the Desert Arabian horse in its area of origin before it is too late. I will conclude with my recom­men­da­tions on actions needed to save this precious genetic and cultural resource.


The combi­na­tion of a wealthy landed aris­toc­racy, an opulent west­ern­ized bour­geoisie, and a prox­imity to the breeding areas of Arabia Deserta helped turn Lebanon into a main center of Desert Arabian horse breeding and racing in the first half of the 20thcentury. The current Beirut race­track, the Hippo­drome des Pins, dates back to 1915. In addi­tion to absorbing the national horse produc­tion, it attracted horses from all over the Middle East, mostly from Syria and Jordan. The Beirut race­track enjoyed its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. It was a focal point of the Beirut social scene and the mirror of its pros­perity and assim­i­la­tion of Western values. The race­horses that epit­o­mized this period best were the Desert Arabians Ghazwan, a Kuhaylan al-??Kharas from Hims in Syria, and Mach’al, an Ubayyan Sharrak bred by the Dandashi clans of Tall Kalakh.

The Dandashi landowners of Tall Kalakh, an area in western Syria close to the Lebanon border, were famous horse breeders during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. They gath­ered some of the best lines of Desert Arabians from the Sb’aah tribes, and bred some of the most famous horses of their era. Their strains of Kuhaylan Nowak, Saglawi Ibn Zubayni, Jilfan Sattam al-??Bulad, and Ubayyan Sharrak were espe­cially renowned. The black stal­lion O’bajan, imported to Babolna, Hungary, by Michael Fadlallah al-??Haddad in 1902, was one their horses. Many other smaller breeders flour­ished, espe­cially in the fertile plains of Akkar in northern Lebanon, and the Biqaa valley in the east.

By the mid-??1950s the Beirut race­track also began to attract Iraqi horses from Bagdad and its vicinity. These horses were taller, stronger, and certainly faster than the small, sturdy Lebanese Desert Arabians who had so far consti­tuted the bulk of race­horses. They also had a size­able amount of English Thor­ough­bred blood (at least 25 percent), tracing to the English Thor­ough­bred Tabib. Tabib himself had raced in Beirut in the 1930s, and was later sent to Iraq where his progeny filled the Bagdad and Basra race­tracks. Whether the gentlemen who had imported Tabib’s grand­sons to Beirut were aware of this fact remains an open ques­tion. Some evidence indi­cates they were. It is known that the same folks who had kicked Tabib out of Beirut 20 years earlier went back and imported his grand­sons, and — much worse — used these stal­lions on their Lebanese Desert Arabian mares.

By the 1960s, a strong market for Iraqi horses had devel­oped, and the cross-??breeding of Iraqi imports with Desert Arabians had become the norm in Lebanon and some areas of Syria, mainly Hims, Damascus, and, to a lesser extent, Hama. In 1974, a rescue effort was attempted and a Lebanese Stud­book submitted a draft stud­book to WAHO (World Arabian Horse Orga­ni­za­tion) — which had just been launched two years earlier — with 130 Desert Arabian mares and stal­lions from Lebanon. The civil war (1975–1991) then nipped this effort in the bud, and many of these horses were lost, sold without papers, or exported to the Gulf coun­tries as riding horses.

In 1992, at the close of the civil war, only 27 old Desert Arabian mares — mostly daugh­ters of Mash’al  or his sons Wazzal, Acchal, Mihrass, and Malak al-??Ahmar — and two stal­lions could be found and regis­tered in the WAHO-??approved Lebanese Stud­book. Their average age was 22. A last preser­va­tion effort was attempted, but too little was done too late. Today, nothing remains of Lebanese Desert Arabian breeding, a once vast and ambi­tious national venture that could have served as outcross to many inbred Desert Arabian lines.


Egypt has been the focal point of economic, polit­ical, mili­tary, and cultural power of the Arab world for more than a thou­sand years. Although not a country of origin for the Desert Arabian horse — Egypt imported its Arabians from the desert, just like Poland, England, or the USA — it has been a center of Arabian horse breeding, with contin­uous flow of imports from Bedouin tribes of Arabia Deserta, at least since the Mamluk era in the 14th century AD. Egyptian kings, noblemen, pashas and beys, and a few West­erners imported horses from the desert for breeding and racing purposes. Today, Egypt remains one of the main centers of asil breeding in the world. The history and contri­bu­tion of Egypt to Arabian breeding is well docu­mented, and there is not much that can be added within the para­me­ters of this overview.


Algeria was a French colony for more than two centuries. The French imported hundreds of Desert Arabian stal­lions into Algeria from cradle areas, mainly from the desert of Syria, a region that fell under French influ­ence after WWI. Arabian stal­lions were chiefly used for crossing with Barb mares to produce Arab-??Barbs, the French army’s stan­dard cavalry horse of Algeria and its North African auxil­iaries. A long war of occu­pa­tion in Algeria and contin­uous rebel­lions justi­fied the French produc­tion of large numbers of cavalry horses, fed by a contin­uous flow of imports from Arabia Deserta. Pure Arabians were also bred sepa­rately, albeit on a smaller scale, and were used for cavalry remounts as well as racing. The city of Tiaret in western Algeria was for a long time the chief stud of the Etab­lisse­ments Hippiques de l’Afrique du Nord and remains the country’s main breeding center.

Some Desert Arabian mares were also imported, and the Desert Arabians of Algerian origin trace to two of them: Cherifa, a Shuwayma Sabbah from the Sb’aah Anazah tribe, and Wadha, a Jilfa Dhawi bred by the Fad’aan Anazah, imported by the French in 1869 and 1875 respec­tively. Other female lines such as that of Yamouna and Zenab were as valu­able, but less prepo­tent. Of the hundreds of desert­bred stal­lions the French imported to Algeria, a few stood out, of which the most signif­i­cant were Venture, a Hamdani Simri brought from Lebanon in 1896; Bango, a gray Managhi Sbaili bred by the Shammar but imported from a race­track in Alexan­dria in the late 1920s; Safita, a bay Kuhaylan Khdili imported in 1934; Ghal­bane, a Hamdani Simri, and Masbout, a Saglawi Jadran, both bought from the Beirut race­track in the mid-??1940s.

The Algerian war of liber­a­tion broke out in 1954, claiming one million victims. Upon the country’s inde­pen­dence in 1962, the Etab­lisse­ments Hippiques de l’Afrique du Nord, like every insti­tu­tion asso­ci­ated with the French colo­nizers, were disman­tled. When Arabian breeding was formally rein­stated in the 1980s, it included the admix­ture of non-??Desert Arabian horses from WAHO-??accepted Euro­pean studbooks.

Fortu­nately, because of historic move­ment of desert imports and their offspring between Algeria and Tunisia (see below), most of the Desert Arabian horses now bred in Tunisia trace in part to horses bred in Algeria or horses imported there from Arabia Deserta. Three or four of those very precious Tiaret lines were brought back by French settlers returning home from the former colony: the lines of Bassala (by Masbout out of Sapon­naire by El Managhi), tracing to Wadha, and that of Iaquouta (by Safita out of Aroua by Sidi Gaber), tracing to Cherifa, are the most well-??known. No more than 10 to 15 Desert Arabian horses of Algerian descent survive in France today, most of them aged mares.


A French protec­torate since 1881, Tunisia followed a pattern similar to Algeria during the late 19th and mid-??20th centuries. Many horses, mostly stal­lions, were imported fromArabia Deserta straight to the main center of the Etab­lisse­ments Hippiques d’Afrique du Nord in Tunisia, the Stud of Sidi Thabet near Tunis. The most signif­i­cant imports were the stal­lions Nasr, Ibech (from the Sb’aah tribe), and Tamerlan (a Dahman) in the 1910s and ‘20s; Ibn and Hellal in the ‘30s; and Cheykh El Ourbane in the ‘40s. There was also one signif­i­cant import from Egypt in the 1920s: the chestnut Ibn Fayda I (by Ibn Rabdan out of Lady Anne Blunt’s Fayda), a gift from Prince Kemal Eddin Hussein to Sidi Thabet. (Editor’s note: This Ibn Fayda was full brother to the bay Ibn Fayda present in living Egyptian lines as the sire of El Moez, Zaher, and Adham.)

Most dam lines trace back to the 19th century: that of Samaria, a Kuhaylah Ajuz, and that of Dolma Batche, a Jilfa Sattam al-??Bulad, are the most predom­i­nant today, with the addi­tion of the line of Emtayra, imported in the 1940s. Many Desert Arabians bred in Algeria (see above) even­tu­ally found their way to Tunisia and were incor­po­rated into the breeding there. In conse­quence, Tunisia became the second French-??influenced center of Desert Arabian horse breeding in North Africa, with the Sidi Thabet as its hub.

Some private studs (e.g., the stud of Sidi Bou Hadid of French Admiral Anatole Cordon­nier) also bred excel­lent horses, many from Algerian Desert Arabian blood­lines. Mr. Cordon­nier bred the most influ­en­tial Tunisian sire of all times, Esmet Ali (by Hazil out of Arabelle by Beyrouth), a gray stal­lion tracing to Cherifa, a desert­bred imported to Algeria. Esmet Ali is the sire of the prepo­tent race winner and sire Dyna­mite III. Mr. Cordon­nier also bred several of the Tunisian horses that found their way to France in the 1950s: the stal­lions Iricho (by David out of Chanaan by Souci) and Irmak (by Aissaoui out of Leila by Duc II), and the mares Izarra (by David out of Arabelle by Beyrouth) and Hallouma (by Aissaoui out of Cilicie by Titan) are but a few. Conversely, some horses bred in France had been imported to Tunisia in the 1930s and ‘40s. Some were authentic Arabians, like Duc II (by Djebel Mousa out of Djerba), or Mossoul; others were not, like Kriss II. Fortu­nately, upon the inde­pen­dence of the country in 1956, the manage­ment of Sidi Thabet decided to cull all the French horses from its breeding program, and only kept the Tunisian and Algerian lines. Until very recently the only imports were from Egypt, the stal­lions Ragheb (by Tuhotmos out of Rakia) and Ibn Ikhna­toon being the most influ­en­tial. The result of this wise policy is that today as much as 70 percent of the Tunisian national herd is composed of Desert Arabian horses.

I have had the good fortune to make a recent trip to Sidi Thabet in Tunisia and conclude that it may be home to the largest pool of Desert Arabian horses in a state stud after the stud of El Zahraa in Egypt. Today Sidi Thabet is the center of a dynamic horse breeding industry that caters mostly to the local race­tracks, and is home to some 60 mares and 10 stal­lions (not counting colts and fillies). The most influ­en­tial are the grand Akermi (a legend, 40 wins in 46 races) and Halim (38 wins), both sons of Dyna­mite III, and Samir, a son of Daoues II. Over the past few years, unfor­tu­nate impor­ta­tions of stal­lions from France cater to the expanding racing market. Their get have not been used for breeding as of yet. Still, this puts a ques­tion over the future of the Desert Arabian breeding in Tunisia.


Yet another French protec­torate as of 1912, the Kingdom of Morocco obtained all its Desert Arabians from three sources: France, Tunisia, and Algeria. The majority of imports came from France or from Tunisia via France: while some were authentic Arabians of desert lines, like the beau­tiful Minos (by Dahman out of Melisse by Benikaled), most traced to doubtful horses, and influ­ence of the latter greatly surpassed that of the former. The impact of Agres, a son of Abel (by Denoute out of Alicante), and of Ras, a son of Kriss II (by Denouste out of Kenia), on Moroccan breeding was espe­cially perni­cious. Egyptian Desert Arabian horses were added later on: Burhan (by Morafic out of Mona by Sid Abouhom) and El Sud El Aaly (by Nazeer out of Lateefa by Gamil III) were most prepo­tent, but were lost forever, and today there is not one Desert Arabian horse of Moroccan stock.

A Sorry Situation

To summa­rize my brief survey: Four nations — Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia — concen­trate what is left of Desert Arabian horses in Arab coun­tries, and are the remaining outcrossing hope for heavily inbred Desert Arabian lines in the rest of the world. There is absolutely nothing left in Lebanon, Algeria, and Morocco. Jordan and the Gulf coun­tries (other than Bahrain) each harbor no more than two dozen.

The situ­a­tion in Iraq and Saudi Arabia is extremely complex to sort out, and it is diffi­cult to know how to iden­tify the remaining Desert Arabian horses there, most of which are not regis­tered in the WAHO-??accepted stud­books. Yemen and Libya are great unknowns to me. They may turn out to be trea­sure troves, or there may be nothing left there.

All this leads, finally, to the crucial ques­tion: What should we do with this sorry situ­a­tion? How do we keep the situ­a­tion from dete­ri­o­rating further? Of 20 Arabic coun­tries that are either the cradle origins of the horse or coun­tries that received large numbers of Desert Arabians over historic periods, only four have any signif­i­cant number of such horses. Where few remain in other coun­tries, the Desert Arabian horses will be lost without urgent action.

Next steps

The Insti­tute may be best posi­tioned to create and dissem­i­nate new knowl­edge about this situ­a­tion and to provide inter­na­tional lead­er­ship to save this precious genetic and cultural resource from extinc­tion. If I may allow myself to make a number of sugges­tions to its Board, these would be the top priorities:

Commis­sion country-??by-??country scoping studies about the status and prospects of Desert Arabian horse breeding in all the coun­tries of the Middle East and North Africa.

A crit­ical prereq­ui­site for the success of this effort is the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the right person or persons to draft these projects: indi­vid­uals with inside knowl­edge of the country and the Desert Arabian horses remaining there. The studies can be written initially in Arabic or French and trans­lated later. The results should be reviewed by a peer committee and put online to increase inter­na­tional awareness.

Under­take a compre­hen­sive effort to iden­tify indi­vid­uals and asso­ci­a­tions likely to contribute to the preser­va­tion of Desert Arabian horse breeding in the region.

Not everyone in the Middle East and North Africa is an expert on the orig­inal Desert Arabian horse and its asil descen­dents. Just as not every rancher wearing a cowboy hat is a mustang or an Appaloosa expert, Desert Arabian horse experts cannot be iden­ti­fied by the clothes they wear, the language they speak, or the posi­tions they hold as regis­tering stud­book authorities.

Often the real expert is not Western educated and does not speak English; still one should go through the extra effort to iden­tify these resource persons at any cost. The few knowl­edge­able people remaining may be spread out over large terri­to­ries; they may not be on good terms with each other. They certainly don’t hold symposia and semi­nars, and don’t commu­ni­cate by email. The implicit knowl­edge these people hold is not written — after all, this is a region where oral tradi­tion is predom­i­nant, making the codi­fi­ca­tion of this knowl­edge all the more urgent.

• Share existing knowledge.


We should provide incen­tives to indi­vid­uals to share infor­ma­tion with each other instead of holding on to it. The United States has a tradi­tion of exchange that can serve as a global model. Publishing existing and new infor­ma­tion as it is acquired on Web sites and in hard­copy is one option. Encour­aging experts in the Middle East to contribute knowl­edge and opening the flow of infor­ma­tion between East and West is vital to this effort. In the Middle East today, preser­va­tion is not a system­atic effort. It is done infor­mally, with two people meeting by chance and deciding to exchange horses, some of which happen to be Desert Arabian horses.

• Rethink old notions in light of new findings.


We are all on a quest for learning. No one holds the absolute truth. When new infor­ma­tion shows up, we need to acknowl­edge both the infor­ma­tion and its impact on the existing state of knowl­edge. We also need to release our hold on myths and tradi­tions that have grown up in the West but that will not with­stand exam­i­na­tion in the Middle East and will be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to discuss with experts there.

Why Western Leadership?

It may seem odd that I, an Arab man of the Middle East, advo­cate that such a compre­hen­sive preser­va­tion action orig­i­nate from the United States. We Arabs do recog­nize that Amer­ican breeders of Desert Arabian horses have acquired over the last century the cred­i­bility to reach out to Arab breeders and engage them in a global preser­va­tion effort. Why? Simply because Amer­i­cans have bred the best and biggest numbers of Desert Arabian horses over the past century. Amer­i­cans got horses from Arabia Deserta — this year we cele­brate the 100th anniver­sary of the Daven­port impor­ta­tion — bred them, and kept them pure. Hunt­ington, Daven­port, Bradley, Harris, Borden, Babson, Brown, and Hearst started it and many others followed. Amer­ican breeders imported a little and did a lot.

This is why, as a home to the largest pool of Desert Arabian horses in the world, the United States has a respon­si­bility to take the lead in this effort. It not only can, it SHOULD. Other­wise, there will be nothing left in the next century except the heavily inbred Desert Arabian horses produced in North America. There will always be Desert Arabians here in the States. True, the large breeders and great vision­aries of past years are gone. Today there are smaller and smaller scale breeders, but the breeding continues and commit­ment to the Desert Arabian horse continues.

Cautionary Notes

To succeed, you will need to approach Arab breeders in a different way. If you happen to go to the Middle East and North Africa, you’d need to do so with an open mind, a will­ing­ness to chal­lenge existing beliefs, and a readi­ness to accept diffi­cult truths. Looking for confir­ma­tion of some theo­ries now prevailing in the United States is a point­less exer­cise. Rather, ask the Arab breeders what THEY think — and ask as many of them as possible. Don’t hold on to old infor­ma­tion from Western trav­elers such as Carl Raswan.

Finally, if you are to succeed, you must remember that, in the desert there is no “straight” anything. “Straight so and so” is no more then a brand name to cluster bunches of horses brought out from the same desert areas, from the same pool of Desert Arabian horses into arti­fi­cial silos just because they happened to be bred by different breeders over here. Terms such as “straight” Daven­port, “straight” Babson, and “straight” Blunt are Western creations. Accept that strain names and historic blood­line names are created names. When you trace the historic horses back 200 years they have the same roots. They were imported at different times, bred as closed groups, and they might not look alike anymore. So what? All are “straight” Desert Arabian horses, and their very few rela­tives remaining in the Middle East and parts of North Africa and will soon be lost if nothing is done.


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