This image was taken by Sheila Russell, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London and has lived in Saudi Arabia for over 5 years. Image Credit: Courtesy of Sheila Russell

Camel racing - treasured and homegrown renowned in Saudi Arabia for its popularity and tradition. A sport adored by many worldwide, if you are a camel racing enthusiast, you will know that Riyadh, Taif, and Sharurah are the prime places to witness the best-bred camel racing in Saudi Arabia. This sport is part of a deep-rooted history of Arabian society, with historians claiming that camel racing dates to the seventh century when men, women, and children of that time would use camel racing as an activity to bring everyone together. Time has not faded the importance away; the prevalence is still intact. The timeless, ancient sport speaks for itself and connects with many people in the region and the diaspora away from home.

Located in Saudi Arabia in 1964, the first official camel race took place as part of the Heritage Festival, which led to camel racing becoming a professional sport in 1975. Today, it is acclaimed as a profession, passion, and preservation of culture and tradition in the Middle East.

Sheila Russell, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London has been living in Saudi Arabia for over 5 years, often described as a ‘Modern Explorer’, Russell is on a mission to document the history, culture and natural beauty of the Kingdom. Camel racing has been a big part of this, “It is a wonderful part of the culture of Saudi Arabia and surrounding Gulf Countries. It is not only a time for racing, but one when people gather from vast areas, travelling often for weeks to partake in all things linked to camels. Old friends are reunited, stories are told, much coffee and food are shared, goods are traded and new camels are bought. It is a tradition and true part of the culture that has gone on for many years and a joy to visit and be part of.” She tells us.

During March this year, the region's most expensive race, with prizes for over $21 million took place - the inaugural AIUIa Camel Cup, the CEO of the Royal Commission for AIUIa said in a statement, “The AlUla Camel Cup will celebrate the noblest of Saudi Arabian sporting traditions, welcoming royalty VIPs, the elite of the sport, and many distinguished guests to the most glorious of settings for this illustrious occasion.” AIUIa is at the core of recognizing the significance of camel racing in the region throughout history to today. Organised by the RCU in collaboration with the Saudi Camel Racing Federation (SCRF), the AIUIa Camel Cup was held from March 14-17, 2023, and welcomed world-class art and music performances alongside the prestigious and skilled sport. Celebrities like Will Smith, who was alongside Grammy-winning record producer Swizz Beatz were seen embracing the joys of racing. The record producer is the first American to own a camel race team in the Kingdom. This race invites camel owners and breeders from different parts of the world to compete in the Kingdom and gives a space for the sport to make its mark globally - honouring the past, present, and future of camel racing.

Known as the ‘ships of the desert’, camels and camel racing can be celebrated wherever you are. A part of the festivities which holds high importance is the art of camel dressing. Russell says “During the festivals, much more brightly coloured and elaborate fabrics are used which cover a larger area of the camel's back. They are often combined with saddle bags for carrying large items. Tassels are commonly used, hanging below the saddle and flowing majestically with the stride of the camel. During cold weather, the camels often have coats to keep them warm, complete with additional pockets to cover the hump."

If you are living or visiting Saudi Arabia you have the chance to embrace Arabian culture through the beauty of camel racing. And you will have many exciting events to look forward to, although some have passed the hysteria whilst the next ones are in motion and stay ignited.

“With the many festivals in Saudi Arabia, including the Crown Prince Camel Festival held annually during July and August in Taif and the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival held during December and January in North of Riyadh, there are many opportunities for people to visit and learn more. Only recently the Royal Commission for AlUla held its own Camel race, increasing its accessibility to an even greater number of people. Having said that, we must continue to share this amazing sport far and wide.” Says Russell.