David Whitley heads to Dubai’s camel racetrack, and discovers the Emirati bond with the dromedary darlings is hard to shake
Dawn breaks over Al Lisaili and two distinctive shapes appear on the horizon, trotting with a comic lack of grace. Camels don’t do elegant well. Watch one chewing hay and it looks like a gurning simpleton, its jaw of gunk-coated teeth shuttling back and forward like a weaver’s loom.
They may be comic creations, but don’t tell the cashed-up citizens of Dubai that. There’s a curious bond to the camel in the UAE. It’s not just a relationship between man and beast in the same way that you might find with a dog or a horse – it’s a relationship between modern Dubai man and his heritage.
For all the bling and globe-driving ambition of 21st century Dubai, Emiratis seem very keen on grabbing at their Bedouin roots whenever practical. That often takes the form of bombing around the desert dunes in buggies, but it’s most clearly seen at the camel race track.
The Al Lisaili track is a giant, modern affair where the lights are kept on all night, and the circuit stretches for indeterminable kilometres in the distance. Nothing but the best for those who race on it.
Qaser, who has driven me here before daybreak, says he doesn’t come to watch the races any more. Not since they moved the track from near the city to out on the Al Ain Road. It’s too far away now. You can’t just drop by.
It’s an indication that camel racing is no longer a sport of the masses. But the prizes are substantial for those rich enough to own camels and pay people to train them every day.
From the trackside grass, the camels come past sporadically. Some are tied together and jogging under the guidance of a cameleer who has the herd under control while riding just one. Others are being ridden at a faster pace with adult jockeys.
The real speed comes from the ones that aren’t being ridden at all, however. Well, not by humans anyway. Amid international outcry in the last decade, Dubai phased out the child jockeys that can still be seen racing camels in other parts of the Middle East. Kids from India and Africa, not yet in their teens, were once brought in to ride the camels. They’d often suffer terrible injuries after falls, then be sent back to their home country crippled with no future prospects.
Now the jockeys are even smaller – they’re robots. This leads to the bizarre sight of the camels being followed around the track by Toyota Landcruisers, the owners or trainers inside them brandishing remote controls.
The robots are fairly basic, but they have little plastic sticks – think a larger version of the one you might find in a hedge-strimmer – that can be used as a miniature whip. A flick on the remote control gives the camel a little gee-up.
As the sun comes up even further, more and more camels arrive at the track. We start asking whether there are going to be any races today, but the men leading their beasts are remarkably reticent to reveal any information.
Qaser thinks he knows why. “They’re scared of the media,” he says. “They could get in trouble if they give anything away.” We only want to know what the best day to catch a race is – Friday is the eventual, reluctant answer – but the fear of spies and unwanted revelations about a particular camel’s form seems intense.
For us, the scores of humped lumberers chased by 4WD vehicles is funny. For those who have invested in them, it’s deadly serious.