Big Business Built on the Past
An edited version of this article appeared in Abu Dhabi Week magazine in August 2011. It no longer appears online.
It’s no secret the native Bedouins of the UAE are famous for their nomadic wandering, but did you know that some scholars believe this restless people didn’t really begin their desert roving until they tamed camels? Though their relationship with the camel dates back thousands of years, modern Emiratis race camels these days for the breeding, the big bucks, and the bragging rights.
The domestication of Middle Eastern camels has been prevalent for eons; archaeologists have found evidence suggesting the use of camels in the UAE as far back as 3000 BC, when camels were the measure of a man’s worth, his source of sustenance, shade, and transportation. Early nomads valued every part of the camel for its milk, meat, hair, and hides. Races originally took place—often for show—whenever people gathered for religious feasts, weddings, and later for national holidays. Camel racing has since evolved into a major industry in the UAE, employing some 9,000 workers who tend over 14,000 racing camels.
Many of those workers are the camel trainers, and the various methods that work for them are as different as the trainers themselves. Though their often secretive techniques are not the same, most trainers would agree that, when it comes to handling a camel, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (literally—a race camel’s diet consists of oats, bran, dates, milk, and, yes, honey). Camels will reputedly never forgive or forget wrongs done to them, and a camel that has been treated badly may refuse to race or turn back for the starting line—some have been disqualified and even banned from racing for life.
Camels generally begin their training at the age of two. Each novice is paired with an older, more experienced race camel called a galeesah who acts as a mentor for the younger athlete. Trainers generally begin new camels on a schedule of interval training, building the animals’ endurance by having them walk longer and longer distances as their training continues week by week, eventually making the transition from walking to running call tafheem. Each week’s top speed is recorded to track the camel’s progress.
Once they’re ready to begin racing, usually around the age of three, the camels are divided into categories depending on their age, gender, and breeding. Mirroring the training schedule, the proper races become progressively longer as the season continues. At the beginning of the season, races are only 3, 4, or 5 kilometres long, but these distances gradually increase throughout the season up to 8 kilometres. Only once, during the very last race of the year, will the oldest camels—who will be six or seven years old—run a special race of 10 km.
While the gangly camel may seem comical to the uninitiated, these strangely beautiful creatures are one of the capital’s hottest commodities. At a recent camel auction at ADNEC’s Abu Dhabi Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition, for example, potential racing camels sold for between Dh 18,000 and Dh 210,000 on the final day of bidding.
Though Dh 210,000 may seem like a lot to spend on what has become a rich man’s hobby, that’s nothing compared to other, more famous sale prices, which are based largely on the pedigree of animals that have proven themselves on the track. The most expensive camel in Abu Dhabi’s history went for 6 million dirhams last year at the capital’s fourth annual camel auction. The buyer? Dubai’s crown prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
That huge sum may also seem like a good investment when you consider the amount of prize money on the line. In addition to swank new cars, ceremonial weapons, and the prestigious berag—the flag of championship—there’s a total of Dh 25 million in prize money up for grabs every year. And it’s not just the owners that get to bask in the thrill of victory; winning camels will strut their stuff in front of their fellow dromedaries decorated with za’faran, a coloured paste made from the very expensive spice saffron.
Even more importantly, camel owners can expect winning camels to appreciate in value, both on the auction block and in the breeding arena. Despite all the dirhams on the line, betting is illegal in the UAE. Instead, all prize money and funds required to conduct the camels races are provided by the government as decreed by the late President of the UAE, HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan.
Part of the fun in watching any race, of course, is having a team to support. When choosing a camel to support, there are several factors you must consider. Race camels are first divided into groups of male and female. Since males tend to gain muscle mass as they age, the fastest racers are usually female. Within each gender, camels are separated by age and descent. Younger camels run shorter distances while older animals run longer races, and purebred Emirati camels are considered more valuable than those that have been crossbred with camels from anywhere else. If your happiness rests on the victory of a particular camel, you should know that, while anyone can enter any race, each camel is only allowed to run in one race per day.
If you’re not that fussed about breed or gender, you may prefer to back a particular tribe or Emirati family. The most famous camel owners, of course, are the UAE royal families—you might want to cheer for the camels that belong to one of the Al Nayhan or Al Maktoum brothers, but there are plenty of other players in the camel racing game, including the Al Mazroui and the Al Kaabi families. You can identify the camels that belong to the different owners by the unique saddle blankets and racing silks the camels wear.
Despite the grandeur of the prizes, winning is not always as important as the bragging rights. In a land that thrives on image and presentation, Emirati camel owners are so proud of their athletic animals that the bigger, strong camels that come purebred from the Sudan are not allowed to race in the UAE at all; hybrid animals that have been crossed with Sudanese camels run in an entirely separate category from purebred Emirati camels.
A Day at the Races
It’s a great day for the races; the fluorescent dot of orange sun—which so recently clung to the rosy early morning sky—has quickly risen into a flaming ball of honey, and the temperature couldn’t be better. Several television cameras lend an air of importance
to the proceedings while numerous trainers line up the next batch of camels at the starting line. Pigeons graze lazily on the track while the trainers, some wearing helmets and chest guards, stand inside protective barriers until the race begins.
With a clatter, a track-wide chain adorned with red and white flags rises and the camels are off in a flurry of pigeons while barefooted trainers leap from the barriers to urge the camels to top speed. One surly camel wearing black, white, and red tries to turn back to the starting line, but a man on a giant camel sets the rogue straight with a ‘hiya!’ and a smack of his stick. Incongruously, three fighter jets roar overhead, adding just a touch of the surreal to an otherwise authentic tradition.
As the camels hit their stride, Land Cruisers speed along either side of the track. From within their swank SUVs, these assistants will operate the Kamel mechanical jockeys that are mounted to the humps of the swift-footed animals. Each electronic rider wears Kentucky Derby style racing silks, complete with numbers and caps perched on the tops of ball-shaped heads, and operators can flip the switch to send tiny whips whirring, making a pat-pat-pat sound on the camels’ rumps.
The camels belong to the royal families are running today, but despite their lineage, these goofy animals are all kneecaps and drooling, open lips as they surge around the track. From the finish line, it’s hard to make out the camels at the furthest point of the track, but it’s easy enough to gage their progress by the herd of attendant Land Cruisers. Both the drivers and viewers watching from the finish line can listen to the running commentary of each race, which is broadcast (in Arabic) on the radio.
As the camels approach the finish line, the SUV drivers lay on their horns in a final attempt to encourage their racers—it sounds like the Corniche after a UAE football victory. Though the first leader was a tall blonde wearing orange and purple, he’s since fallen back to fourth place. First and second place of this race go to two matching beauties wearing white blankets, each with a red border and straps decorated with tassels and twin triangles that look like the HSBC logo. Camels wearing these colors are on a winning streak today, scooping up victory after victory, and with good reason—their owner is the current president of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
When to Go
This year, the season began on the first of October and will continue into April. The biggest races are the Zayed Cup from December 3 to December 10 and the championship races at the end of the season from March 28 to April 6. The pomp and circumstance surrounding these main events—especially the championships—are attended by all the most important local sheikhs, plus the heads of state of all the surrounding Arab nations, but everyone is welcome. The final ten-day event is a full blown festival, complete with tents celebrating Arab culture.
From now till December, races will begin around 6:30 a.m. and finish around 8:00 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Until the Zayed Cup, the camels belonging to the royal families will run during the week and those belonging to everyone on the weekend. No races will be held the weekend of November 28 in preparation for the Zayed Cup and there’s another long break from the end of the Zayed Cup until the first of the year. During the spring season, races will only be held on Fridays and Saturdays, but there will be two races each of those days, at 6:30 a.m. and again at 2:00 p.m.
Like all race entries, admission is free to everyone. Though there’s an arena with seating situated in front of the finish line, it stands empty, partly because spectators wouldn’t be able to see much from the seats, but mainly because these early-season races don’t really cater to spectators. While everyone working at the races is polite, practically no one has the time (or English) to pander to tourists. You’ll get the best view standing alongside the start and finish lines; no one seems to mind, provided you stay out of the way.
You should also be aware that it’s a man’s man’s world out here in the desert. If you come to the races, you’re experiencing a real Emirati tradition, not just a demonstration that’s been put on to impress sightseers. For this reason, female visitors would do best to show extra respect for local custom and dress very conservatively.
- Camels are called the ‘ships of the desert’ because they can transport goods for weeks on end through the harshest conditions with minimal food and water, and because their rolling, side-to-side gait resembles a ship at sea.
- A camel’s hump is made of fat, not water, and will shrink if the camel hasn’t eaten.
- A new born camel weighs between 50 to 60 kg. Camels reach their maximum weight of up to 600 kg by the age of six or seven but can live to be as old as 50.
- Camels have soft, padded, two-toed feet—not hard hooves—that allow them to walk in sand without sinking.
- A camel can go 17 days without drinking, although it may lose up to a third of its body weight in this time, and a very thirsty camel can drink 100 litres of water in under 10 minutes.
- The fastest camels in the UAE can run 10 km in under 17 minutes.