Sitting in the grandstand of the enormous Al Marmoom camel racetrack on the outskirts of Dubai, I find myself surrounded by a sea of khanduras. Having completed the 45-minute drive from the city past the Sevens ground, I’m now right in the middle of the action. Camel trainers murmur among themselves, one lights up a pipe, then camel canes fly in all directions as the men rush to get the best seat in the stadium. The sound of chanting and beating drums fills the grandstand. For a moment, I feel as if I’ve been transported to a bygone era, Bill-and-Ted’s-Excellent-Adventure-style. But then I catch a glimpse of the object that’s vying for their attention. It’s not the racetrack. It’s a TV. Two TVs, in fact – and they’re perched directly in front of the stand, ready to broadcast the race.
Just like the city itself, it appears the tradition of camel racing has taken on some modern ‘tweaks’ in recent years. There’s no better example of this than the procession of cars that line up as the race is set to begin. Around 20 four-wheel-drives flock to the starting point, sharp-looking men in perfectly starched dishdashas shake hands, and geared-up cameramen take their positions from various towers surrounding the track. At about 2.15pm (I was advised the official race time was 2pm) around 60 one-humped dromedary camels are off and out of the pens, strapped with colourful blankets and tiny robotic jockeys (the use of child jockeys has been banned in the UAE since 2002 due to human rights concerns). Camel legs splay out in all directions (if you’ve never seen a camel run, check out the aforementioned TVs for a full frontal position: it’s a little like watching Bambi learn to walk), and the cars head off in convoy, stalking the camels as they beep their horns, all the while controlling the robotic jockey’s whip from within the vehicle. Suddenly, an excitable voice booms into the stadium and Arabic horseracing-style commentary is provided to egg on the onlookers (of which, on this particular Tuesday afternoon, there are little other than myself and the trainers).
Speaking with Mr Marwan, an official from the Dubai Racing Club later that day, I’m told that these camels, which run at a spritely rate of 40 km per hour, learn to race when they are two years old, and that apparently they enjoy the competitive nature of the sport. He tells me that the camel racing scene is important to Emiratis in Dubai because it’s a part of their national make-up. ‘It’s tradition. Like the racing of kangaroos in Australia, here we race camels.’ As trusty providers of transport, food, milk and shelter to desert Bedouin for hundreds of years, camels are a national treasure to Dubai and remain so to this day.
About 15 minutes pass before I once again spy the camels appearing out of the distance (it’s best to come armed with binoculars). The race I’m watching is made up of smaller camels that are three to four years old, and so the distance is set at 4km (this can go up to 10km according to the size and age of the camel). The animals are now on the home front and scramble for the finish line, located directly in front of the grandstand. Some camels are going hell for leather (one robotic jockey seems to be having a field day with the whip), while others are simply dawdling on through. One by one, the trainers jump up out of their seats, chasing after their camels (who have that runaway-caravan look in their eyes, and appear to have no intention of stopping), to prepare for the next race. I find out later that the winning camel, a crowd favourite clad in appropriately chic black and white blankets, belongs to HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. While you may expect the prize money to be quite the reward, the winner of today’s races takes home a total of Dhs2,500, with that amount decreasing by Dhs100 until the 10th spot. However, during the finals (the biggest races, held this year from February 19 to 29) the owner of the winning camel will take home a luxury car, such as a sparkling Range Rover or Mercedes, as well as pocket Dhs4,000.
While this unique cultural experience is more for observors than participators – there’s no sign of camel rides or tourist tat pushers here – you can visit the nearby Camel Market to take home some unique souvenirs. Small stores sell decorative items, such as camel blankets and ropes. (To find these, drive as if you are taking the Dubai exit, but instead of taking a left onto the E66, head straight and you will see the low-level sand-coloured buildings which house these small shops).
Driving back to Dubai, I realise that today has been one of my most unique in the emirate. While the journey to the track may require more effort than the inner-city sights, camel racing most distinctly reflects Dubai’s blend of tradition and extreme modernity.
How to find the Track
Al Marmoom Camel Racetrack is located past the Sevens on the Dubai-Al Ain E66 Road, on the right. When you reach the Al Lisali exit take the first right off the highway. There is no signage from here, so take the first right again after the exit. Drive down the road until you see what looks like an official building (this is the first grandstand). Take a right, then a left and follow the road around to your left until you reach the second grandstand (which is where the action happens). Races run on different days through October to March at 7am and 2pm, and are set out according to the size of competing camels; the next race featuring ‘big’ camels will be on Wednesday January 18 and Thursday January 19. Call ahead a few days before your trip to check which days races are happening that week. Entry is free (04 832 6526).
Camel beauty contest
To see which is the fairest of them all, camel beauty pageants are held once a year in December, during the Al Dhafrah Camel Festival in Abu Dhabi, when beautifully-adorned camels strut their stuff for prize money, which in 2011 totalled Dhs42 million. The first prize winners in the native Asayel and Majahim categories (for dark-skinned Saudi Arabian camels) each took home Dhs1 million.
Falcons are also judged on their looks in the UAE. The last falcon contest was held in Abu Dhabi during the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition in September 2011.