The Majesty of Dubai’s Racing Camels in Training

Young camels get used to going around the racetrack

Although there is still a chill in the air, the early morning sun begins to heat up the sand dunes as the camels trot past, their padded feet scarcely making a sound on the desert floor. Stately seniors, with trainers perched on their backs, lead one or two youngsters by ropes tied around their necks. They are here at the Dubai Camel Racetrack, where photographer Khalid Aziz came to capture these stunning photographs, taken over three visits in February 2012.

A trainer on a camel leads his charges over rippling sand dunes.

It is a scene that could have taken place a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or just yesterday. This is because the training and racing of camels on these sands is a tradition that has been honored through the ages — and one that is still widely practiced, even in the age of SUVs and modern technology.

Camels are known to be inquisitive animals. This one certainly looks curious.

Camel racing is an ancient custom in the Arabian Peninsula, going back at least as far as the 7th century AD, and possibly much further. While horse racing was associated with the wealthy of the region, camel racing was the sport of the people — popular at festivals and other gatherings.

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Going for a brisk run

The Arabian camel is known as a ‘dromedary’ — a word that comes from the Greek verb meaning “to run”. And that’s exactly what these camels do. In the United Arab Emirates, the racetracks fill from October to April, a period when the blistering desert heat has abated for a little while. The sport is as popular today as it ever was.

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The younger camels are tied to an older and more experienced racer.

Like horses, racing camels are bred especially for the track. Local government encourages the sport and provides subsidies to those who own camels and to those who breed them. These days, raising and training camels is a highly specialized industry, a far cry from the folksy pastime it began as.

Older camels are a calming influence on the young learners.

The racing camels start training at a tender age. The baby camel is separated from its mother when it is about a year old for its initial “breaking in” period. This involves tying the young calf to a calm older camel that will act as a kind of mentor and role model for the next few months.

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A camel’s mouth is adapted to feeding on thorny desert foliage that even goats can’t eat.

Now the preparation really begins. The camels are handed over to experienced trainers, often Bedu (or Bedouin) whose tribes have strong cultural ties to the sport of camel racing. For these trainers, working with the camels is not just a job but a vocation, and one into which they pour their heart and soul. Of course, the fact that they are often provided with cars, phones and a good salary by the camel owners doesn’t hurt either.

Getting a camel to become accustomed to the track is an import part of its preparation.

For camels and trainers, the day starts early, in order to beat the heat. The animals are allowed to wander and graze in the desert, in between more disciplined walking. Riding with camels is a more peaceful experience than it is with horses. For one thing, their soft feet are a lot quieter than clopping horses hooves. Also, camels generally have a more serene air than their equine counterparts and are less likely to be spooked.

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All that exercise can make you hungry! Camels are fed a nutritious and carefully measured diet.

By mid-afternoon, the sun is scorching, even at this cooler time of year. The animals and their trainers head back to their farms for a drink and a snack. Although they are famous for being able to go without water, a camel can drink up to 80 liters (21 gallons) in one go! After refreshing themselves, most of the rest of the day is spent resting in the shade. This is a relatively easy stage in their preparation for the races ahead.

Camels kick up dust as they run over the sand.

As the racing season approaches, it’s time to step things up for the apprentice sprinters. The daily walking distance is doubled and the creatures’ food intake is increased. Their diet includes alfalfa, oats, barley, milk and honey — all in carefully regulated amounts. After all, a fat camel is not a fast camel.

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Trainers accompany trainee racers

The camels’ training intensifies yet further as the animals are made to run on a track. Camels practice in this way in between the regular races, and are often surrounded by hundreds of other trainee racers who come to exercise at the same time. Fortunately, camels love the company of their own kind.

Training in the desert is done in the morning to avoid the heat.

Things slow down again for the final part of a camel’s preparation, which happens a couple of days before the race. The animal athlete is bathed, fed lightly and then does nothing but rest until the big day. This provides a good respite in between all the training and the general madness of the competition.

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The camels used for racing are of the one-hump variety.

A young camel must wonder what it has gotten itself into as it is led to the track for its first race. In contrast with the peace and relaxation of the previous two days, the stadium is a cacophony of noise and frenzied activity. Drumbeats fill the air, as do the race commentaries in Arabic. In the crowd, excitement levels are high amongst owners, trainers and spectators, who have come just to take it all in.

Training starts slowly and intensifies as the camels get older and closer to their first race.

When the signal is given, around 60 camels take off at a time, speeding around the track at about 24 mph (40 kmph), sometimes more. The competitors race with others of the same breed, age and sex. Being lighter and therefore faster, female camels are the favorites and participate in more races.

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The camels are allowed to wander and graze in the desert as part of their exercise.

A camel’s racing life normally starts when the animal is around three years of age and continues until the age of about nine — unless it is a particularly strong competitor, in which case it may run for a lot longer. The inexperienced racers are given shorter track lengths of around 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) while older camels can sprint up to 6 miles (10 kilometers).

Symbols of both ancient and modern Dubai

Someone attending a camel race in the UAE for the first time, and unfamiliar with the sport, may wonder about the strange little robotic mannequins sitting on the camels’ backs. For centuries prior to 2002, children as young as four were used as jockeys in the races because of their light weight. Naturally, the exploitation of children for sport and the appalling conditions they lived under caused an international outcry.

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Time for a rest and a snack

Following the ban, mechanical jockeys were developed to ride in place of those unfortunate kids, and, for some spectators, the robots are now part of the attraction of the races. The tiny automatons are controlled by remote devices operated by trainers, who follow the racing camels around the outside of the track in SUVs. Greatly preferable to anxiously hoping a little boy will stay in the saddle and not be crushed by running dromedaries.

Camels emerging from behind a dune

Despite the many (sometimes very positive) changes to the sport, camel racing remains strongly tied to tradition in the UAE and many other Arab nations. The cash prizes at races are generally low (with some exceptions) and betting is not allowed, so the activity is pursued mainly for prestige and enjoyment rather than financial gain. Of course, it should be stated that many of the top racing camel owners are already very wealthy men.

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Another round of the track

The camels themselves are well treated (which makes sense for such pricey investments) and are reported to enjoy the competition.

One of the camels looks on.

The photographer of these stunning pictures, Khalid Aziz, reports seeing nothing shady or questionable while he was on assignment with the camels. In his words, “It’s a centuries old tradition and I have respect for these people who are still trying to hang on to their culture in this modern era.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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