In today’s world, camels are prized largely for their sporting qualities, and, in the UAE, camel racing is taken very seriously indeed. ‘The sport of sheikhs’ (deceased president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is thought to have owned some 14,000 thoroughbreds) can be witnessed at racetracks across the country between October and March, with weekend races starting as early as 7.30am to avoid the heat. The season, throughout which a breeder can win up to US$7,000,000, culminates on National Day at Al Wathba Racetrack, Abu Dhabi, where contestants compete for the Zayed Grand Prize. Other important racetracks include Al Maqam (Abu Dhabi) and Nad Al Sheba Racecourse (Dubai).
Since 2002, the use of child jockeys – a highly controversial practice – has been strictly forbidden. In their place sit humanoid robot jockeys; tiny critters with molded faces, sunglasses and perfume (the camels wouldn’t have it any other way, apparently), that control whip and reins and weigh no more than three kilograms. These freaky riders are radio controlled, the operators often keeping up with the race beside the track in Jeeps. If you only do one thing in the UAE, and the season is right, make sure you see this amazing juxtaposition of old and new.
In late 2008, Dnata Travel launched Dubai’s first camel polo outing to great fanfare. The graceful, usually equestrian, sport took on a rather peculiar aspect, as pictures emerged of ill-at ease riders lunging at balls from a very great height. The Dubai polo & Equestrian Club are one of the few organisations that offer camel polo lessons. Though given that the average tourist possesses neither polo skills nor camel riding ability, its obscurity comes as little surprise.
There are obvious comparisons to be made between a donkey ride on the UK’s Brighton beach and a camel safari in the UAE. Both have the potential to be an expensive tourist trap, and both come with the risk of being quite dull five minutes in. However, if you plan for an evening trek and leave your cynical self behind, the repetitive sway of their unusual gait can be hypnotic and relaxing, and the crimson sands of the UAE desert knock Brighton’s stony grey beaches into a cocked hat.
If it’s your first ride, be warned: boarding and disembarking is a tricky feat. The camel doesn’t stand up so much as unfold beneath you. Our advice? Hold on tight and hope for the best.