Gone like the wind

One of the oldest sports in the Middle East, camel racing is a traditional Bedouin spectacle. Adrienne Cernigoi discovers the excitement of a sport that has moved into the 21st century, with robot jockeys, lucrative cash prizes and the creatures themselves now million-dollar status symbols for wealthy owner

For a truly authentic experience in the UAE, look no further than the camel race. The cacophony of car horns, shouts and thud of hooves as these desert beasts lollop towards the finish line is an exquisite snapshot of the things dear to Bedouin culture: camels, competition and celebration.

Known affectionately as ships of the desert, camels provided vital food, milk and transport to the Bedouin living on the Arabian Peninsula. They were also a source of entertainment as far back as the seventh century CE, to when camel racing can be traced.

Then, the races were held in small, local communities for fun, or at weddings and festivities such as religious feasts. At weddings, the groom’s family would sometimes offer small, symbolic gifts to the winner, but camel races rarely carried a prize except glory.

Racing continued to be a feature of the UAE as the country developed. During the 1960s, one of the races in Dubai ran along the emirate’s coast, a 15km dash from the old Chicago Beach (in Jumeirah, close to where the Burj Al Arab stands today) to Shindagha, on the creek.

Both Sheikh Zayed and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, made efforts to promote camels, and camel racing, during the 1970s and 1980s, after the camel was made obsolete as a means of transport. The modern-day race pays homage to the supporting role of the camel in the Bedouins’ history, as well as being a fun event.

Camels have a narrow window in which to race. Typically starting at the age of four to six years old, the animals reach their competitive prime at seven or eight, before retiring at around 11 years old. The races range between 4km and 10km, depending on the age of the camel. While camels can reach speeds of up to 65km/h, their main asset is endurance, not speed.

There are several dedicated racetracks across the UAE where the spectacle can be watched during the racing season between October and March. Races – such as those at Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi, and the Al Marmoum track outside Dubai – start early at around 6am.

Today, the camel race has very modern features. First, the riders are robots. Weighing just a few pounds, small motors are decked out in colourful jockeys’ silks, equipped with a whip and a speaker to transmit the trainer’s commands issued via walkie-talkie. The trainers trail the racing camels in 4x4 vehicles. Some traditions remain: the valuable spice saffron is rubbed on to the necks of the top three camels as a sign of honour.

Camel racing is both true to and has evolved from its humble origins. Today’s race winners compete for large cash prizes and the camels can fetch a princely sum. In 2010, the sport hit the limelight as one fan bought three racing camels for US$6.5m; the average camel sells for US$7,000. Still, camel racing remains a predominantly Emirati sport, with few non-locals venturing to witness its chaotic beauty. With these photos, we offer you a glimpse into this sporting and cultural heritage.