Benita Adesuyan rises before dawn to spend a morning at the races and enjoy the ‘Sport of Sheikhs’.
We set off before sunrise along Dubai-Al Ain Road and into the fringes of the city. It’s an early start, but it’s worth it for a chance to see the UAE’s oldest sport in action.
Camels are an intrinsic part of Emirati culture and visitors and residents alike have a fondness and respect for the ships of the desert – the sight of one never fails to evoke excitement. So seeing hundreds is a sight to behold.
The Al Marmoum Camel Racetrack hosts races weekly between September and April, attracting camel owners from across the UAE. Before the races begin at 6.30am we mill around the preparation area where the camels are being readied. The musty smell of dung mixes with the humid morning air and the handlers drape the humped animals in their jockey’s colours and hang floral decorations and ribbons around their necks.
The handlers also secure small electronic jockeys onto their backs.
As the races get underway, there are no claxons or horns. Instead the netted barrier is simply lifted. Animated Arabic commentary booms over the arena and 20 camels start to sprint down the track, leaving a sandy wake behind them. They are not the most graceful creatures. As they run, their long knobbly legs splay out and their large lips hang, but what they lack in poise, they make up for in speed.
Abdullah Faraj, the track’s event director, meets us at the start line. ‘At top speeds they can go between 30kph and 40kph and they’re trained from the age of one,’ he tells us. ‘Racing camels are different to other camels as they cannot be used for other things. They might not appear to have a physical difference, but the people who train them can see it.’
On either side of the track, fleets of white four-by-fours carrying their owners drive alongside the darting dromedaries to see the action close-up and a pair of TV trucks film the races, which are broadcast live on Dubai Racing. Spectators have a comfortable modern seating area in the grandstand next to the finish line so they get a good view of the animals as they cross it. But to see their progress over the course you’ll need a good pair of binoculars.
The races are grouped by the age of the camel and span 4km, 5km or 6km. Abdullah says that they can race until they are seven or eight years old. The sport is competitive – the winners of the event we saw took home luxury watches and a chance to compete in every racing festival in the GCC.
Given the track’s removed location and the no-frills venue, don’t expect to see swathes of tourists. This is no desert safari trip where you can buy a stuffed camel toy or chocolates in the gift shop at the end. This is an age-old cultural experience as well as a sporting event where traditional and contemporary values mix. Seeing the galloping animals flanked by fleets of expensive SUVs is a clear mash of old and new but it also shows that the event is still relevant in modern Dubai.
Changes have been made to the sport to bring it up to date without changing its traditional core. For example, small children being used as jockeys was outlawed in 2002 in favour robot jockeys equipped with walkie talkies. ‘We are working on [changing the races for] the future. For example, this is the first smart track which provides a photo-finish [where a photograph is automatically taken at the finish line, allowing adjudicators to see exactly which camel came first] and it’s the first in the GCC.’
Camel racing is still big business and although it is known as the Sport of Sheikhs, you don’t need to be one to enjoy it.
Free. Morning sessions 6.30am-8.30am, afternoon session 3pm. Call to confirm dates. Al Marmoum Camel Racetrack, Dubai-Al Ain Road, www.dcrc.ae (600 555 559).
More opportunities to get the hump in Dubai
Buy a camel
Head to the camel market at Al Lisaili to see breeders and owners trade. You can also buy colourful blankets and ornaments here.
Daily. 7am-10pm. Dubai-Al Ain Road, www.dm.gov.ae
Ride a camel
Get on board the Rise and Shine tour for a tranquil ride on one of the ships of the desert and enjoy a traditional breakfast.
Dhs295. Sun, Tue, Wed and Fri. Arabian Adventures, www.arabian-adventures.com (04 214 4888).