Jostling for space against the starting gate, the camels about to head full tilt down the track don’t change their facial expressions once. There’s a placid acceptance of their role — no bickering, no pushing or shoving and certainly no biting.
A hydraulic starter releases the tethers and they take off in a clump of bumps, humps and gangly flailing legs. The grumpy camel stereotype is a myth for not a single moan or groan emits despite having anything from four to 11 kilometres to complete. Very much like human marathons, it all depends on age, ability and experience.
At 6.30am the Al Marmoum racetrack in the Al Lisaili area is pumping. As the 20 or so camels race at around the same speed as horses, their owners and trainers follow in hot pursuit in 4x4s, along with specially adapted filming vehicles fitted with rails and a permanent swivel chair on top for the cameraman. Four tall towers stationed alongside the racetrack also support the cameramen.
Next-in-line participants await their turn in docile groups while latecomers stroll in from the windswept desert in colourful blanket-clad caravans. They settle near to the modern shaded 600-seat grandstand of the Dubai Camel Racing Club (DCRC). The genders do not race together, for females are generally faster than males. For about six months of the year starting October, Arab nationals gather to indulge in their favourite local sport.
Good old sport
Camel racing has taken place in the Middle East for thousands of years on an ad hoc basis, but more recently special tracks have been built and rules developed to govern the sport. Under the late Shaikh Zayed, the focus was to retain and encourage traditional values, which is being maintained by the current rulers. Emiratis and GCC nationals come to the Al Marmoum track regularly during racing months, which culminates in the season’s end festival in April offering prizes on a par with the Dubai World Cup. The DCRC race committee organises all the races in Dubai as well as periodic camel auctions.
Camels participating in the races have to have an ID card similar to our own national ID, says Abdulla Ahmed Faraj, Chairman of Marketing and Media, DCRC. “This holds the camel’s DNA, its name, age, parents, owner and trainer plus a photo.”
The camels also have a microchip implanted in their necks. “Without an ID a camel cannot participate in the races.” Once the camel is registered an ID is issued.
Cars and camels
From the grandstand you see the competitors as they round the final bend bringing them straight past the finish line. The accompanying cars shimmering in the morning haze and dust kicked up by the hooves paint a dramatic picture — this row of shiny metal moving like one force alongside the animals. The first loping dromedary thunders past way ahead of the pack, its boss in a 4x4 in pole position alongside it as much as is possible considering the track railings. There’s a finely balanced vehicle positioning etiquette arranged beforehand so no car crashes occur.
All the racers have a light-as-a-feather robotic jockey attached to the saddle that works via voice communication with the owner or trainer, who is usually hanging excitedly out of the car window. He talks furiously into a device similar to a walkie-talkie, instructing the robot jockey (no small children jockeys are allowed in the UAE anymore — not since September 2005) to encourage the camel to go faster by administering a mechanical arm to whip on the rump, which you can hear slapping away repeatedly as the finish line draws near. Does it hurt the camel? Apparently not — it has thick skin.> He shouts to the robot. Just talking would do, but this is a rather emotive sport especially if one’s camel is coming last. The device and robot have to be within a range of ten to 15 metres from each other to have any chance of being effective. Varying in quality and price from Dh900 to Dh3,500, robots are even available in the nearby Al Lisaili Camel Market, which sells all things appealing to camel breeders.
The runners bringing up the rear come past in twos and threes, unperturbed by their frantic owners thumping their car horns incessantly in a last-ditch attempt to get their beast to beat its rival. Unlike a human jockey, the robot does not have the ability to control the animal in any other way, so after it crosses the finish line a handler must run out to catch it.
UAE national Mohammed Khamis Alkhaili breeds camels for racing, mostly to maintain a cultural tradition but also because it is a “challenge of self-assertion”, he says. Of his 65 camels, 15 are kept for racing while the remainder are used for milk and breeding purposes.
“Our government gave us a farm and I have to go there every day to look after the camels and train them with the help of my worker,” he says. A government employee, Alkhaili’s farm is in Al Marmoum and he has been racing camels for three years.
Racing rules are determined by the DCRC, which owners, most of whom oversee the training, have to closely adhere to. The rules state what age the camel must be to race a specific distance. For example, a camel aged one year can race for two to three kilometres and a five-year-old camel can race a distance of eight kilometres.
The main problems affecting camels include tendon and ligament ruptures as well as, Alkhaili says, “fevers, colds, peptic ulcers, coughs and noisy crowds. Camels are easily scared if there are loud voices and sudden movements”.
He is among the camel owners that transport their camels to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and other racing festivals. His camels start racing at two years old.
Cost and reach
Alkhaili says it costs him between Dh500 and Dh800 to feed and maintain one racing camel for a month. The food is balanced to include protein, vitamins and minerals but mainly consists of barley, clover, dates and cow’s milk.
Applause erupts from a group of local men who have been watching the race on a small TV perched in front the main seating area. The commentary is all in Arabic, so visitors might not know who won but this doesn’t change the interest factor. The DCRC website is also currently only available in Arabic, but this is changing, says Faraj, with an English website under construction that will be ready early next year.
The camel racing schedule is available from strategic partner Dubai Calendar at Dubaicalendar.ae but these do change, so it’s best to call the number given on the website before setting out (see box on left). A café serving snacks will be up and running soon at the grandstand. “We are distributing water and juices for free and people can bring their own food with them,” he says. There’s also a family area with more than 200 seats.
Camel racing enables Arabs to keep in touch with their cultural roots, allowing young people to share a common interest with their ancestors. The camel is a source of food, mode of transport and form of livelihood and a symbol of the heart of the UAE’s people.