A day at the camel races

| Updated on September 27, 2019

Qatar’s robot riders are helping end the exploitative use of child jockeys, some as young as four, in a country obsessed with camel races

As one approaches the quaint hamlet of Al-Shahaniya, nestled in a desert and far away from city life, it is hard to imagine the frenzied hub of activity it becomes when it’s time for the races. Internationally renowned for camel races, the Al-Shahaniya Camel Racing Track is located on the Doha–Dukhan highway, an hour from the downtown area of Doha. Both domestic and international tournaments are held here between October and February, the peak season for the races. Qatar’s history of camel racing — a symbol of the country’s cultural heritage — can be traced to the region’s nomadic Bedouins, for whom the camel was a mode of transport, a sign of wealth and a lifeline in a harsh environment.

Today, camel racing is a costly pursuit that few can afford because some breeds cost as much as one million Qatari riyals (₹1.94 crore). More than 6,000 camels from Qatar and other countries compete in the racing season to win coveted prizes such as golden and silver daggers, in addition to the Golden Sword prize, which goes to the winner of the final event — HH the Emir’s Main Race.

Even when there are no races, visitors can stop by at the track on any day at 9.30 am or around 5.30 pm, when the camels are brought to the arena for practice. There is virtually a city of camels around the track. Although there is shaded seating in the grandstand, locals follow the race by driving their cars along the paved road that runs parallel to the 10-km oval circuit. There are many shops selling camel feed and camel ornaments enroute, and there are several clinics of veterinary surgeons near the camp.

Baby camels start training for races when they are just two, under the care of trainers from India, Pakistan and Sudan. The young camels are lined up on the track along with other experienced animals and are expected to pick up the skill merely by running alongside them. The two daily training sessions last 45 minutes each. Only the animals that can run at speeds of at least 40 km an hour will qualify for the races. The age of the camel determines the length of the race it runs. Young camels between the ages of two and four can race only for four-five km while camels older than six years can cover 10 km. The distances vary by tournament, but usually exceed five km. The main festival has six-, eight- and 10-km races.

Racing camels have special diets that include dates and indigenous shrubs. They can usually race for about 10 years before they finally retire. A large tract of land and enough funds to cover feed costs are a must for any camel breeder.

There is the added cost of (artificial) insemination for some breeds. A few passionate breeders from Qatar even fly their animals to other countries to be artificially inseminated. Females are preferred for racing because not only are they gentle but also easier to manage and train.

Remote-controlled robot jockeys are a recent addition to the sport. This unique clash of modern technology with an ancient sport delights locals and tourists alike. Toddler-sized robots clothed in colourful racing silks ride these lanky denizens of the desert on the racetrack.

Until 2004, kids as young as four were used as jockeys and the practice attracted worldwide condemnation as exploitative and dangerous for the young ones. After the Qatari government banned the use of kids in camel racing, remote-controlled robot jockeys took over. Weighing about 25 kilos, each electronic jockey is priced at about $5,000. The operator can remote-control the robot jockey’s movements, including commanding it to ‘pull’ the reins, or lash the hind of the animal to make it go faster. As for the camel itself, the operator can ‘whisper’ to it via a built-in speaker.

KK Mustafah

Published on September 27, 2019

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