A few decades ago, Dubai was nothing but a fishing and pearling town along the creek. Life was tough in this harsh desert. They reared sheep and goats for food and wool. Wool was a necessity during winters. They used falcons to hunt and horses for wars. But above all, one animal became an integral part of their daily life. If not for these beasts, it would have been impossible for them to survive the desert. I am talking about the camel — the ship of the desert.
There are two predominant theories as to why they are called the ‘ship of the desert’. One theory suggests that it was because of the way they walked, swaying side to side like a ship on a tumultuous sea. According to the other, it was because of the incredible ability of these animals to traverse the desert with so much weight on their back.
Camels and Arab heritage
Camels were a prized possession of Arabs. They took pride in the number of camels they owned. Camels were expensive and served as a source of wool, food, and transportation. In the past, the Agals (the black ring that Arabs wear on top of their headdresses) were made of camel wool. Look at the volumes of poems they penned about Camels to really understand the love Arabs have for camels. When Arabs liked something a lot, it was in their nature to versify their love. Poetry ran in their blood. They called their camels like they would call one another.
Even today, as modern technology has taken over much of Dubai, they still love their camels. Numerous camel farms across the country are evidence of this. You won’t see camels anymore in metropolitan Dubai except as tourist attractions. They are mostly found in farms on the outskirts of the city. But some bedouin families have their own camels even to this day.
Dubai Camel Racing
Camel racing is about the beauty in the chaos. In the old days, camel races took place as part of weddings and other ceremonies. But the last century witnessed the technology boom in the Emirates and the neighboring regions. As the camel racing culture made its way to oblivion with the inception of modernity, the rulers of Dubai took note of it. They worked on reviving this part of Arab heritage. Today, camel race is among the richest races in the world. Hundreds of camels participate in a typical championship. And the owner of the winning camel takes home a nice sum of money.
Dubai camel racing is not only a venue for the Emiratis. Camel owners from neighboring countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia also take part in this sports event. Apart from them, these races are loved by the tourists who flock to Dubai.
The camel racing season comes between October and April in the winter months. There will be other minor races throughout the year, even during the offseason. Races take place in early mornings on Fridays and Saturdays.
Bring your binoculars to the race. Otherwise, you can watch the camels run on the massive screens in the grandstands. But recently, they have started buses for tourists which moves adjacent to the race track with other cars for a better viewing experience. We hope this will become prevalent in the years to come.
The camel races in Dubai are free to attend. But there will be a huge rush. So you will need to call in a few days before to book your slots. Arrive early on the race day and secure your seats. If you are early enough, you may get a chance to take pictures with the race camels. Unlike horse races where everyone comes dressed to impress, camel races are casual. Watching camel races is a way to experience the heritage and culture of Dubai.
The use of technology has modernized the conventional sport of camel racing. In the year 2001, the UAE banned the use of children in camel racing. But at the same time, the world saw the development of robot jockeys. Before the robots, child jockeys rode the racing camels. Robots are, therefore, a safer alternative to human jockeys. Humans are also heavier and slow down the camel.
To keep the weight of the robots minimum, they are made of metals like aluminum. These days, a typical robot jockey weighs about 27 kilograms. Lower the weight, faster the camel. The robots also come with some handy features like GPS, which helps track the speed and location of the camel and a heart rate sensor to monitor the health.
Al Marmoum Camel Racing
There are many camel racing tracks in Dubai, but the largest of them is the Al Marmoum camel racing track in Dubai Camel Racing Club. It is half an hour’s drive from the main city of Dubai in Al Lisaili area near the Al Marmoum heritage village. Camel races are held here as a part of yearly heritage festivals.
The annual championship in Al Marmoum is the most prestigious camel race in Dubai. In this race, the winning team gets luxury cars, prize money of 80 million dirhams, and trophies. On top of that, they will get an astronomical price tag on their camels, which are usually bought by someone from the royal family.
The race day
Commotions start early on the race day. Typically, there will be two racing sessions — one in the early morning between 7 and 9 and the afternoon session after 2 pm. In a single race, there will be anywhere from 15 to 60 camels. They will be adorned in bright color clothes to help spot them from afar. The excitement is everywhere.
The race camels need to be warmed up before the race. So about an hour before the actual race, the camels are taken for a short sprint while making sure not to exhaust them.
Like in horse races, camels are put behind gates at the start line. Upon the whistle, all the doors fly open. It is the trainers wearing helmets and chest pads who open the gates. As soon as they pull the gates open, the camels spring out and the jockeys clear the way for the camels in the blink of an eye.
The owners of camels and the trainers follow in SUVs. There will be a media crew in their cars telecasting the whole race. The trainer will have a remote to control the robot jockey. As he presses the remote, the robot hand whips the camel to make them run faster. You can also see the owners commanding the camel over loudspeakers.
The camel race is 10 kilometers long. In the beginning, all the camels run neck and neck. But as they near the finish line (marked by a red post), they will be far between. The race lasts 10-15 minutes. As the camels run past the finish line one by one, you will hear the crowd cheering and shouting.
Camel hospitals and camel laboratory
The main center for taking care of race camels in Dubai is located next to the Al Marmum race track. The camel laboratory here conducts studies on the camel to increase their endurance and resistance. It produces genetically enhanced camels that are stronger and faster through selective breeding and cloning under the strict guidelines of Emirates Camel Racing Federation. The laboratory tests competing camels for malpractices such as doping before every major race.
The Race Camels
The camels in the Arabian peninsula and northern Africa are mostly dromedary camels. These camels have only single humps and are taller and have adaptations to survive in the extreme heat.
The two-humped variety of camels is called Bactrian, and they are found in Central Asian regions. For races, only dromedaries are used, and among them, female camels are the most sought after.
Only specific breeds of camels are used as the race camels in the UAE — the native breed Mahaliyat, Sudanese breed called Sudaniyat, Omaniyat from Oman, and the interbred Muhajanat. Race camels can run as fast as 65 kilometers an hour in short sprints and at a sustained speed of 40 kilometers per hour.
The camels chosen for racing begin training as early as when they are two years old. It is against the rules to use camels younger than that for the races as their bones and muscles would not be fully developed. The authorities do not keep a record of each camel’s age, though. Instead, the age of the camel is determined by looking at the size of their teeth. Camels approved for races are marked by special sprays. Those without this mark are not allowed to race.
Try camel sports yourself
There are a few places in Dubai where you can try your hands in camel sports. Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club have facilities for camel polo.
Major camel racing tracks in the UAE
Although there are many camel racing tracks in the country (about 15 of them), these are three major ones:
1- Al Marmoum
2- AL Wathba in Abu Dhabi, and
3- Al Sawan in Ras Al Khaimah
Major camel racing events in Dubai
The two major camel racing championships in Dubai are:
- Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Camel Race Festival
- Al Marmoum heritage festival
Take a dive into the Bedouin heritage
If you want to explore the heritage of Dubai, desert is the best place to start. A safari trip to the desert will let you live like the olden day Arabs in a desert camp for a while. You will also be able to ride the camels and take part in lots of other desert adventures.