Camel Racing Blends Centuries-Old Traditions and Modern Technology
By Sam Borden
From the New York Times
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Not long after sunrise one recent morning, a camel race here began, as they all do, with two starts. First, there was the expected opening: About a dozen camels pressed their noses against a dangling metal barrier, and when a man in a sparkling white robe gave the signal, the gate lifted and the herd surged forward, necks bobbing and humps hopping as spindly legs galloped off into the fog.
A beat later came the second wave. As the camels sprinted toward their first turn at Al-Wathba racetrack, a fleet of sport utility vehicles, five or six wide, shifted into gear and zoomed after them, tailing the animals on the paved roads that flanked both sides of the soft dirt track. To the uninitiated, it looked like a presidential motorcade locked in a low-speed chase with a pack of Bedouins. To the more familiar, it was simply camel racing, modernized.
Inside one of the vehicles, Hamad Mohammed watched the action from the passenger seat. Mohammed, who works for an Emirati sheikh and trains numerous camels, was tracking his entry, Miyan, while a friend navigated through the glut of semidistracted drivers circling the 3.7-mile track. Miyan broke from the starting line and quickly pulled away from the typical jumbling. She settled on an inside position and churned along, flanks heaving beneath green silks.
Small robots have taken the place of children as the preferred jockey for camel racing in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
The car was quiet, save for the thundering tones of the radio announcer calling the race from a van about 15 feet away, also following the camels. As the race neared its midpoint, Mohammed picked up a walkie-talkie, leaned his face against the window and began to make a clucking sound.
It was not a word — not in Arabic or any other language — but more of a murmur, a throaty noise like one might use to coax a hesitant dog. Mohammed made the sound over and over, and Miyan, who was at least 20 yards away, responded, surging forward a bit.
“Good,” Mohammed said softly to his friend. “The robot is working.”
Sports are important in this region, both in the U.A.E. — where big-money sponsorships and high-end events happen in everything from cricket and soccer to rugby and golf — and in other countries, like Qatar, which will host the 2019 track and field world championships and the 2022 World Cup. Yet while much of the action here is geared toward outsiders, there is at least one aspect of sporting life that remains primarily a locals’ game.
Camel racing, in one form or another, has been part of Arabian culture for generations, with some historians tracing races to the seventh century. Camels are viewed as magnificent creatures here — there are even camel beauty pageants — and racing is seen as a unifying activity, a sport that brings together people of all backgrounds, whether royals or paupers, businessmen or laborers.
Racing in the U.A.E. became more organized in the 1980s and ’90s, when Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the first president of the federation, oversaw construction of several racetracks. As races became more competitive and prize money grew, many camel owners began to use lightweight children as jockeys, some as young as 2 or 3, importing them from countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. Falls and critical injuries were common. Trading, bartering and kidnapping of child jockeys, as well as accusations of physical and sexual abuse, were frighteningly frequent, too. At one point, it was estimated that 40,000 child jockeys were being used across the Persian Gulf.
The horrors of that human trafficking left a scar for the sport that lingers even now, 12 years after the practice was officially banned in the U.A.E. Some owners said quietly that they still might prefer to have human jockeys — though none would say so publicly — but a majority, perhaps recognizing the troubling perception of having children ride animals that stand 6 feet tall and can run up to 40 miles per hour, unabashedly praised the technology now widely used instead: robots.
Early models of the robots, which were first produced in 2003, were cumbersome and weighed as much as 30 pounds. The camels generally did not respond well to them, and owners were put off by the difficulty of obtaining them.
In the years since, the production of the robots has become more local and more streamlined. Now, camel owners can go to numerous shops or markets in the U.A.E. to buy robots and accessories, which can even include deluxe silks (the robots are made to actually look like tiny jockeys). The latest version of the robot weighs only a few pounds.
The robots, which are made to look like tiny jockeys, weigh only a few pounds each. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times
One shop, located a quick ride (or, alternately, a leisurely stroll on a camel) from the racetrack in Dubai, advertised its wares with a display of robots in various colors outside the front door. Inside, two Pakistani men, who gave their names as Raheem and Jameel, worked at tables strewn with tools, bolts and power drills.
The Dewalt power drill is the heart and lungs of the modern robot jockey; shop workers like Raheem and Jameel order the drills in bulk and use them, and their rechargeable batteries, to construct the core of each robot. Remote-entry clickers (the kind used for cars) combine with long ribbons of plastic wrapped in cotton to make a spinning whip that can be activated from afar, and walkie-talkies allow the owner to speak to the camel from a trailing S.U.V.
Tailored silks and a spongy head of sorts complete the robot, which can cost less than 2,000 dirhams, or around $500, for a generic model. The robots sit on molded metal saddles when they race.
Raheem estimated that he and Jameel could make 10 to 20 robots a day, though not all of their customers ask for a full device. The shop also handles repairs, and Salim Ali, a camel owner in Dubai, said that the robots could last for several years if taken in “for regular checkups.”
Nader Al Jabri, an owner from Oman, said that he often shopped for robot parts in the U.A.E. because of the high quality of production there. He entered the shop in Dubai on a recent afternoon and began negotiating the price of a whip with Raheem, who was asking for about $10.
After a friendly back-and-forth, Al Jabri departed with the whip and a smile. Raheem and Jameel went back to work. “There are always more to make,” Raheem said.
The waiting area behind the starting line of a camel racetrack is a gathering of characters walking every which way, some dressed in robes, some dressed in slacks, some leading camels, some talking to — or, really, for — robots.
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There are owners, trainers, training riders and handlers. Very rarely are there fans or tourists. When Mohammed and his friend tracked Miyan that morning, they did so in front of an empty grandstand at Al-Wathba. This is not uncommon, since betting on camel racing in the U.A.E. is not allowed. So unless a particularly big race is being contested — one season-ending race has a first-place prize of 1 million dirhams, or about $272,000 — the interested parties, including sheikhs, generally prefer to watch the events on television.
A lack of attendance, though, does not equate to a lack of passion. Owning a camel is an honor in many Gulf countries, and there are laws about how much tax a camel owner must pay (it depends, in part, on how many camels he or she owns). Camels can also be used to pay a woman’s dowry — prices vary — or as collateral in a trade of goods or services.
Owning a camel is an honor in many Gulf countries, and there are established laws about how much tax a camel owner must pay.
Buying camels at an auction — the S.U.V. carrying Mohammed had pamphlets from old auctions littered on the floor — requires heavy research (much as buying a thoroughbred does), and sale prices for camels can range from as little as $2,700 to about $815,000.
Feeding, training and housing a camel costs around $275 per month, according to Saeed Fayed al Zarie, a trainer in Dubai who oversees about 40 camels that are mostly kept in a camel community (a collection of low-ceilinged barns) near the track.
Every day, Zarie wakes up at 4 a.m. and feeds the camels, who rouse and begin their walk to training by about 6 a.m. The camels train until around 9 a.m., then walk back to the barns, eat again and nap until the midafternoon. Then it’s another training session, then more food, and they are back asleep not long after 5 p.m., their bellies full with the nine pounds of food, much of it barley, that they eat each day.
On a race day, the camels line up in the area behind the starting line and wait for their race, kneeling in the sand while their trainers saddle them with the robot jockey and double-check the whip and walkie-talkie. The length of the race depends on the age of the camels, but unlike the action at a horse track, the racing is nearly continuous. There are no lulls, no breaks between races. As soon as one group crosses the finish line, another gathers at the start; then the gate is lifted and the next race begins.
During the race, the soundtrack is a mix of car horns — owners beep at their camels for reasons they struggle to articulate — and loud thwacks, which are the sounds made by the robot whips smacking against the camels’ hindquarters. Watching Miyan, Mohammed waited until the race was about two-thirds through before he began to use the whip, alternating between throaty murmurs via the walkie-talkie and remotely enabled pops to the rear.
Miyan began to fade. As the camels made the final turn, Mohammed pressed the whip button a few times and made desperate squawks into the receiver, but there was no kick, no burst.
He and his friend sighed. Miyan lumbered on, a bit of foam frothing her lips as she bounced to the finish.
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“I am disappointed,” Mohammed said. “This is very average.”
Miyan came in seventh, good for about $2,500. After she crossed the finish line, handlers removed her robot and saddle — selected camels and their equipment are tested after races to ensure no drugs or artificial substances were used — and led her back through a gate. If she had finished in one of the top three places, her head and neck would have been rubbed with golden saffron, a sacred spice, as a show of honor. On this day, she simply went to the waiting area to cool down.
Mohammed and his friend idled in the S.U.V., discussing Miyan’s race and groaning about her performance. After a few moments, the friend hit the gas and Mohammed sat back in his seat.
There was another race beginning, another opportunity. The gate lifted. The camels bolted from the start line. The engines thundered and the S.U.V.s lurched forward, their horns beeping and their tires squealing as they chased the robots through a thin layer of early-morning fog.