Modern Camel Racing in Dubai

Modern Camel Racing in Dubai

We left for Dubai on January 5th, taking the newest Emirate Airline airplane A380-800 from Los Angelos.  Business class on this plane is like first class on BA ~ with amazing service, food, movies and comfortable beds. Our 16 hour flight to Dubai seemed to go by quickly although we still didn’t manage more than a few hours of sleep. Our trip destination was actually Sri Lanka but John wanted to spend a day in Dubai first.  We had visited Dubai 2 years ago on our way to Oman and I thought he wanted to return here because he was smitten with the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower (half a mile high). I knew he wasn’t returning to see the world’s largest mall. Funny how men are attracted by tall and very big things.  I was less interested in the Burj although I did have fond memories of the Palace Hotel and watching the spectacular waterfall fountain ballet music show.
It quickly became apparent that John’s mission was to see the camel races which were running for 3 days only when we were there. Surprisingly we found it difficult to find out from the internet and concierge where the races were held or what time they were to start.  Even the taxi driver was not familiar with these races and believed we wanted to see horse races at a different race track.  With John’s I-pad in hand and the Pakistani taxi driver willing to use his I-phone to call friends for directions we drove for 45 minutes out into the desert searching for the race track.  John turns to me delighted saying, “another adventure”.  Suddenly I see herds of camels being led camel riders down a dirt track.  We stop by a motor cade of 6-8 SUV vehicles and our driver gets out asking in Arabic where the entrance is to the race. We discover we have arrived.  We find that the men in these SUVs are the camel trainers who zoom along the road next to the race track coaching their sprinting camels. Using a walkie-talkie they talk to their camels making a throaty, clucking sound. Placed on the back of each racing camel is a tiny robot jockey (with rechargeable batteries and fancy silk clothes) weighing only a few pounds that both transmit the trainer’s voice and sends a signal for the robot to whip the camel’s back. 
Camel Racing a Cultural Tradition

To our delight we have luckily happened upon a truly authentic sport that is not a tourist attraction but a local tradition that has been part of Arabian culture for generations.  Apparently some historians date camel racing back to the 7th century. There were only a handful of tourists and no other taxis.  We ask our driver to wait for us and he smiles saying we will need him to get back.  He seems as excited by the event as we are. 

Surprisingly the grandstand is mostly empty. We are told that this lack of attendance does not mean a lack of passion because most sheiks and fans prefer to watch the events live on a TV channel dedicated to camel racing. We notice many cameras and an SUV with a camera on its roof which races along side the trainer’s SUVs filming the race.  Owning a camel in the Gulf countries is considered an honor and even may be used to pay a woman’s dowry.  Like horses there are thoroughbred camels with prices ranging from $2700 to $815,000.  Camels cost about $275 a month to feed, train and house them.  First place in a  camel race can bring in over $200,000.  Betting is not allowed. I wonder what the objects are on the backs of the camels. 
Camel HandlersAs I take pictures I realize I am one of only there women at this track. The camel handlers look at me with confusion as if I am from outer space. I feel like I am a strange zoo animal. However, I find these men quite handsome and stare back at them. Only the camels smile and wink at me.

Children are Replaced with Robots

Racing camels in U.A.E. became more organized in the 80’s and 90’s.  Many camel owners originally used light weight children as jockeys, some as young as 2 or 3 years of age. According to a recent New York Times article these children were imported from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan. Falls and injuries were common. Trading, bartering and kidnapping of child jockeys as well as abuse were frightenly frequent.  It was estimated that 40,000 child jockeys were being used in the Persian Gulf.  The horrors of human trafficking has damaged this sport’s reputation, even though the practice of using children has been officially banned for 12 years in the U.A.E.  

The production of robots to replace children began in 2003. These robots can be dressed with silk accessories to look like tiny jockeys which weigh only a few pounds and sit on metal saddles. Trainers use remote entry clickers (like you use for opening your car) to activate a spinning whip from their SUV and the walkie talkies allow the trainer to speak to the camel.

The Race

Three groupings of 5-6 camels are lined up behind the starting line with their noses pressed against a dangling barriers waiting for the signal and the gate to be lifted. 

Each grouping of camels has Arabic men checking their robots, whip and walkie talkies. The races are continuous as one group of camels crosses the finish line, the gate is lifted and another race starts. 

SUVs race around after the camels honking horns and coaching their action through walkie-talkies and jockeys.It is amazing to see these camels with such spindly legs gallop up to 40 miles an hour down this 3 mile track.  I am remined of  my days of rowing races in an 8-person shell where a light-weight coxswain commuicates through a cox box and speakers to coordinate the power of the rowers.
Finish Line