The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

A Race Back to the Future

With Dubai on the fast track to growth, camels keep the culture connected to the past.

Through the distant desert haze, 20 figures appear, dust drummed up in their wake as they barrel toward a sandy finish line.

Horns honk, birds sing and Arabic words stream from the loudspeakers and into the stands with mounting anticipation. But the crowds remain composed. Only when the Sheikh takes the lead do they let out boisterous cheers of excitement.

Yet leading the pack is not the Sheikh himself but his dromedary — a knobbykneed, one-humped camel. Behind him, the others race forward in an identical gallop, their gangly legs pounding the ground past the finish. Most then slow to a stop, but a few plod around dazed, turning back toward the start as barefoot wranglers scurry onto the track to corral them.

Minutes later, the gate rises again, caretakers prodding the animals from behind with sticks and shouts. Another lap begins around the 5-kilometer (3-mile) track, one of 30 championship races to be held almost daily during the 12-day Dubai Camel Racing Festival — 15 laps in the morning, 15 in the afternoon.

It’s an unexpected sight in a city where appetite for growth increasingly eclipses what once was: Urban sprawl radiates from the shadow of the world’s tallest building — the Burj Khalifa skyscraper; man-made archipelagos dot the coast, altering the Gulf’s ecology; and foreigners — lured by the promise of a booming economy — handily outnumber Emiratis, who make up only 10 percent of the population.

Even Dubai’s souks sparkle, signs of grit and age brushed away from these historic markets like granules of sand after the occasional windstorm. Out with the old, in with the new. But today, the past lingers.

Not your average race

To get a closer look at the action, I catch a ride in one of some 50 chase-cars that shadow the races. They consist mostly of white luxury SUVs filled with entourages of aviator-wearing Emiratis, save for two; these vehicles are topped by bandit-style cameramen — faces covered by scarves to fend off the sand as they swivel on roof-mounted seats.

Coasting alongside the track, I watch viscous strands of spit stream from the camels’ mouths over big lips that flop wildly in the wind. Despite their lanky form, their gait is so unexpectedly graceful that when I squint, they almost — almost — look like horses.

The jockeys, on the other hand, resemble nothing I’m familiar with. Here in Dubai, camels are mounted by robots. Once a job performed by children (outlawed in 2002 by the United Arab Emirates, with other Gulf countries following suit), it is now the task of backpack-sized, jersey-wearing machines.

Meanwhile, the chase-cars filled with robot-controlling trainers follow on a paved inner track. From their cars, they urge the camels on, honking horns, speaking to them via walkie-talkies and triggering robot-attached whips that swirl like pinwheels in hurricane-force winds.

But “not anyone can be a trainer,” explains my new friend Feras Qatwa, a 34-year-old cameraman, former child jockey and son of a camel trainer. “He hasto know everything. He has to know [the camel’s] mother and father, his grandfather, what he was doing in the race.”

Starting when the camels are just 2 to 3 years old, trainers take them to the track, running them side-by-side with their mothers. Eventually, the camels are robot-mounted and, during their several-year race career, can run as fast as 40 kilometers per hour.

Mechanical jockeys aside, the human-camel connection couldn’t be closer. One trainer even insists that, among a thousand voices, his camels would know his own.

A royal affair

“Who is that?” I ask Feras, observing from a skeletal watchtower as paparazzi-style cameramen rush to surround a just-arrived black SUV, the cluster of chase-cars parting to allow for its entry.

Indifferent, he replies, “It’s probably Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed.”

Yes, it’s the 31-year-old crown prince of Dubai — His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. A poet in his free time, the modernday royal serves as the chairman of both the Dubai Executive Council and the Dubai Autism Centre, among many other duties. Here, though, he’s just one of the guys; approachable, friendly and a regular visitor to the Al Marmoum Camel Racetrack.

During my two days at the festival, I see various sheikhs arrive to watch their camels, of which they own thousands. Known as “ships of the desert,” these sturdy all-terrain, all-weather pack animals have long been vital to the region, and especially to Bedouins, the tribal nomads of the Middle East. But this has changed as the UAE has grown and modernized. The need for camels just isn’t what it used to be.

Understanding the cultural value of the camel, however, Sheikh Zayed — the visionary behind the UAE’s formation in 1971 — and his fellow rulers decided to promote racing, an Arabian Peninsula tradition since the 7th century. With that, the Emirates Camel Racing Federation was created in 1992.

From prize money to airport-sized parking lots filled with cars awarded to race winners, the sheikhs fund nearly the entire affair, all in an effort to keep the tradition alive.

Focused on the future, grounded in the past

As entertaining as the races may be, it is the income potential that truly propels their success (and not because of betting — gambling is forbidden by Islam).

As with real-estate investments, race enthusiasts might pay 200,000 dirham (US$55,000) for a camel, then turn around and sell their trophy-winning pet for 2-3 million dirham. The opportunity to win lavish prizes only adds to the appeal.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that race popularity grows just like the Dubai skyline, in a country where, according to Feras, the morning news says the Sheikh will build a new city, and then in the afternoon that he will build yet another.

And I believe it: With construction materials scattering the Dubai outskirts, I’m certain that next year — even next month — this landscape will have transformed.

But I’m also starting to believe that connections to the past will remain, too, like they do here at the racetrack.

A shoeless Emirati stands in the mud, rubbing a saffron mixture onto the heads of winning camels. Men dressed in white floor-length robes, known as dishdasha, mingle over cups of gahwa, a cardamom-spiced Arabian coffee. Sheikhs come and go, the object of both respect and deep affection by the surrounding crowds.

This sense of tradition hangs heavy in the humid air as I watch a few final laps with Feras, the afternoon breeze tumbling toward us from the track as though carried on the camels’ very backs.

Between puffs on his wooden midwakh pipe, Feras tells me how his father introduced him to the races and how, starting at age 3, he would drink milk “direct from the camel every day.”

“My father taught me about this; my grandfather taught me about this. I will teach [my future son] of course.”

It turns out that while Dubai may be racing toward the future, it brings the past along with it too — camels and all.

Erin Ridley hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she left a career in marketing to pursue her dreams abroad. Five years and a career change later, she’s now a freelance writer based in Madrid, covering travel, fashion and everything in between.