You’ve seen them nibbling shrubs in the desert and ferrying tourists along the beach, but have you ever seen a camel race? One of the oldest sports in the Middle East, camel racing has a long and proud tradition, and until 2002 saw child jockeys ride the region’s finest dromedaries (that’s single-humped, to the uninitiated) to possible victory. For the past ten years, an ever-evolving procession of robots (yes, you read that right) have taken the place of children as jockeys – helping the sport break all previous speed records.
In Dubai, camel racing season is now firmly under way after kicking off at the beginning of October with the start of the Al Marmoum Camel Racing, which typically culminates in a series of finals, held in February or March. That means if you head over to the track, approximately 45 minutes from central Dubai on the Al Ain Road (E66), you can witness for yourself these curious boxes bouncing around atop some of the UAE’s finest desert-dwelling speedsters. Riddled with curiosity about how these peculiar machines work, we couldn’t resist getting in touch with one of the region’s robot jockey pioneers for the ultimate lowdown – on the next page, Rashid Al Mohammed Ibrahim, manager of the RAQBI Centre, a camel jockey manufacturing unit and supplier in Doha, Qatar, explains all.
Al Marmoum Camel Racing
What: The UAE’s finest, fastest camels compete on the desert track, reaching impressive speeds of up to 40kmph.
Where: Al Marmoum Camel Racing Track, Dubai to Al Ain Road (E66) (055 676 0006).
When: This week on Friday October 18, 6am-8am and 3pm-5pm, regularly until early 2014.
How much: Free.
Camel racing: a brief history
In the past, children were commonly chosen to work as camel jockeys as a result of their light weight, but since 2002, using them in commercial camel racing has been outlawed in the UAE. The ban was designed to end the exploitation of foreign-born minors in the role, who were often injured in races and badly treated. Following the ban, the UAE government has contributed millions of dirhams towards the repatriation of former child jockeys.
How do robot jockeys work?
‘We have stopped making robots now, because this new robot, anyone can make it. I could show you once and you could do it by yourself. It is only a frame, one motor and one transmitter. Most commonly people use things like a battery drill motor and walkie talkie.’
‘We use locally sourced materials to make them. The frame is aluminium, which makes the robot light – some people use metal frames, but these are more common in training.’
‘The new, small models with the motor, battery and frame weigh between 1.5kg to 2kg. The old one weighed about 23kg, because it had to be a similar weight to a child jockey. This is why they’re beating records now, and the camel owners are very, very happy.’
‘Sometimes there are technical problems with the motor, but usually if there are any problems it is between the receiver and transmitter. The most common problem is a bit of interference from another transmitter, so you are shouting at someone else’s camel.’
‘The communication system now is a similar walkie talkie to the one that used to be between child and owner. The sound of the voice instructs the motor. They are noisy, sometimes they shout too much – just like when a football team is losing!’
‘Using the whip helps make the camel run very fast, but it doesn’t hurt the camel because its skin is very thick. For big camels we put in a big motor – if we use a small motor the camel won’t even feel the whip. Actually, in the beginning we faced a lot of problems with that. We put small motors in and the camels weren’t running – it was only when we used bigger ones they started running. The whip doesn’t hit too hard though – it doesn’t need to because of the nature of the camel. It has a huge body, but it is easily scared, even if you just raise your hands.’
‘This big one was the first one we built. In the beginning, we used larger robots to ride the camels because the owners wanted us to make something as similar to the child jockey as possible – same weight, same shape. We made about 20 of these, for trial only, and we discovered that it was really too complicated, and there was no need for all this extra movement.’
‘The early, big robots were the most expensive to make. One would cost around Dhs15,000. The smaller ones we made later [now the most widely used] are very cheap, maybe Dhs1,500.’
‘We can make the clothes here – the old model is wearing normal clothes that were made locally with local material, but sometimes the nylon material comes from a company in Switzerland. As you can see, the red clothing on the small, new model is a local fabric. Today, each camel owner has their own colour or initial or logo, like a uniform or kit.’
‘Operating this big one was difficult – the controls were big and too technical to use. The owner usually sits in the car and follows the camel round the track giving orders. With the complicated remote, they couldn’t do both at the same time. We had to give special courses in how to use and operate the remote.’