The Sport of Camel Racing

Camel Racing began as Bedouin tradition. The Bedouin people prized their camels highly, and naturally turned to races to test their mettle. They often raced to mark weddings and other festivals. A newly-prosperous United Arab Emirates has experienced a revival of interest in the practice. Modern camel racetracks are maintained at Al Ain, at Dubai and Umm Al Quwain. The light, slender Anafi and dark Boushari camels are the best racers. Male camels enjoy about 10 years of racing life, but females can race for about twice as long.

Races are held on Friday mornings and during national holidays. Tourists are encouraged to visit the modern facilities to experience the local colour of traditional costume, social gathering, a living yet ancient tradition, and the thrill of the race- but without gambling, of course!

Sheikh Zayed has been instrumental in sponsoring international camel racing events, including an annual camel race festival at Al Wathba, and the "Sheikh Zayed’s President’s Cup", held in Sydney1.

Camel Jockeys

As with horse racing, creatures with smaller, lighter jockeys are at a distinct advantage- think of a successful horse jockey, and you'll think of a small man, perhaps with a squeaky Irish accent. A modern camel jockey is likely to be a child- boys as young as 4 years old often race, although older children are more common.

Despite a law-change in March 2005, which outlaws any UAE citizen from employing a child of under 16 or under 45kg, the practice remains common- an embarrassment to a country seeking to modernise.

Tales of Slavery

The police in the United Arab Emirates have constructed a camp to rehabilitate former camel jockeys. The 50 or so boys (aged 7-15) who are cared for there tell stories of human trafficking and hardship. They are from as far afield as Sudan and Pakistan. Human rights groups groups claim that agents have a lucrative business of "selling" kidnapped children to camel ranch owners. The authorities have also uncovered evidence that parents are bringing children into the country with falsified documentation, in order to find them work as camel jockeys. Agents and parents stand to make 1,000 dirhams (about $250 US) a month from each jockey, which they tend to keep for themselves.

The boys are often treated very poorly. Those at the camp tell stories of cruelty, starvation (to reduce race weight), beatings, and sexual abuse. Prison-like accommodation is common, to prevent escapes.

The police camp was set up in November 2004 with the aim of rehabilitating and repatriating 2,700 child jockeys, and by May 2005 has managed just 60.

Enter the Robot Jox

The next big thing in this ancient sport could be mechanisation. A Swiss company has developed a "robot" jockey that can perch behind the camel's hump (the traditional Bedouin position). They can pull on the reins and lean from side to side, and so steer their steeds. However, they are operated by radio remote control. The current generation cost about $5,500 US each, but development costs could have been as high as $1.3m.

Initial field trials were held in Qatar in March 2005, and were reportedly a great success. The government there may buy 100 robot jockeys and rent them out to camel-owners for the races. The UAE's Abu Dhabi royal family are also said to have attended a trial of the technology, and were impressed.

So perhaps technology is poised to alleviate the need for children to lose their childhoods in the name of sport- only time will tell. In the meantime, as JudyT points out, the image of robots and mop-haired kids racing dusty beasts across the desert is all a bit Star Wars.

  1. The Australian connection is not so surprising. Camels run feral in Australia, and some are rounded up and exported to the Gulf states. They are prized for their resistance to common diseases. It's worth mentioning that in Australia the prohibitions on camel racing are reversed- there are no child jockeys, but gambling is A-OK.

Child Trafficking Sources:

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