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Volume 52, Number 3May/June 2001

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Racing in Rhythm in the UAE

Ah, but when grief assails me, straightway I ride it off mounted on my swift, lean-flanked camel, night and day racing, sure-footed, like the planks of a litter; I urge her on down the bright highway, that back of a striped mantle; she vies with the noble, hot-paced she-camels, shank on shank nimbly plying, over a path many feet have been beaten.

From Tarafah ibn al-'Abd's, "The Ode of Tarafah"

Written by Carol Flake
Photographed by Lorraine Chittock

If you drive southwest of Dubai City, past the outermost stretches of ultramodern towers and commercial centers that ring the pale coastal salt flats, you'll come to the edge of the beckoning desert. There, a sign at a roundabout points the way to Nad al-Shiba, the camel racetrack that has become a Dubai landmark. From a distance, the track's distinctive white grandstand could be mistaken for a giant Bedouin tent.

On race days during the five-month fall and winter racing season, traffic can get busy on the road to Nad al-Shiba, and the desert around the track fills with camels making their way along sandy pathways to the entrance. Here, camels have the right of way over the four-wheel-drive vehicles that have largely displaced them as desert transportation throughout the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

It is fitting that the UAE.'s first major camel-racing track was built where the modern city gives way to the desert and the camels can be seen in silhouette against skyscrapers. Here as elsewhere around the Arabian Gulf, camel racing has become a sport where old traditions have taken on modern trappings, where the animal that once appeared in danger of losing its place in an ever-modernizing society is finding a vital new role.

"Camels are in the same stage as horses. The only thing keeping them surviving is racing," says Shaykh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, defense minister of Dubai, who has been instrumental in developing camel racing there. The modern sport, he explains, "gives them a modern value. And it gives them a future."

The camel had once provided most of life's necessities for desert nomads: It was a form of transportation, of course, a source of meat and milk, and provided hair to be woven into cloth for tents and storage bags. Its leather was made into sandals, buckets and watering-troughs and its sinews into bowstrings. Its dung was an excellent fuel and its urine had medicinal properties. Equally important, time was measured by the camel's pace and described in terms of its life cycle. Its stride provided the meter for the tagrud, the marching song Bedouins used in order to artfully while away a long journey. Similarly, a poetic form called the qasida, a kind of paean' was originally composed while on camel-back, and the poem typically reflected on the glorious ancestry of the camel as well as the honor of its owner. When camel races were held in the desert, qasidas were occasionally recited for the winners. And when he was a boy, Shaykh Mohammed once recalled, his family had actually allowed a particularly favored camel to enter the house.

By the 1960's, however, Shaykh Mohammed and many others in the region had recognized that the camel was becoming obsolete. New roads had cut through remote terrain where once only camels had trod, allowing cars and trucks to traverse the desert. Herders who once followed their goats and sheep from watering hole to watering hole on camelback could now settle down, for water and forage could be brought in by truck. Permanent homes replaced camel-hair tents.

Around the same time, in Saudi Arabia, King Faisal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz also noted the gradual disappearance of the camel from everyday life, and he endorsed camel racing as a means of maintaining the animal's place in the people's heritage. In 1964, Saudi Arabia sponsored the first major organized camel race in the region.

Held in the desert near al-Janadriya, now the site of the kingdom's annual heritage festival, the first race took place over a roughly marked 19-kilometer (12-mi) straightaway course in which hundreds of camels participated in a barely controlled stampede.

Over the next years, the sport began to spread around the Arabian Peninsula, with races held on similarly improvised straightaway desert courses. Sometimes the courses would be improved a bit by grading them with bulldozers, which left berms of sand on each side to mark the edges of the track. Since there were no grandstands, spectators would either look for a high dune or hop into a four-wheel-drive vehicle to follow the action alongside the racing camels.

During the early 1980's, Shaykh Mohammed's involvement in international thoroughbred horse racing gave rise to the idea that camel racing might benefit from some of the more formal aspects of that sport. A permanent racetrack, he decided, should be among the first improvements. In 1983, once the site at Nad al-Shiba was chosen, he drove out to sketch, in the sand, the rough course of the track, driving his Range Rover in an oval. His chief engineer and crew followed, putting down stakes at frequent intervals. When the odometer indicated eight kilometers (4.8 mi), they stopped. The races would be run counter-clockwise, like thoroughbred races in the United States, but their length would be considerably greater, for the camel's forte is not so much speed as endurance. Most of the races would be run at eight or 10 kilometers, although a shorter track was also created within the larger one. The new grandstand, constructed of sprayed concrete in the shape of a giant, billowing tent, allowed breezes to pass through, cooling the spectators under its broad shelter.

It took less than a decade for camel racing to become established all around the UAE, and races were generally held on Fridays over a three-month winter season. In late February or early March, the season culminated with big meets in Abu Dhabi and Dubai that featured special races for top camels. By 1990, when I saw my first camel races in Dubai, there were 12 camel tracks scattered around the UAE, and the sport had evolved a number of technical adaptations.

Camels, for example, were too big for the stalls of the standard starting gates used for horses, so engineers devised a starting line made of a retractable cable barrier. The animals lined up at the cable, up to 100 of them across this widest part of the track, and a compressed-air mechanism dropped the cable at the press of a button for a fair, even start. Camels also proved too tall for standard horse-track guardrails along the perimeters of the tracks, so those at Nad al-Shiba were raised about 30 centimeters (12") to help keep the animals on course. The rails were also redesigned to be more flexible than those used for horses, because camels unaccustomed to running within the confines of a track tended to gallop right into the rails.

Another adaptation was for the sake of the spectators. Because the camel tracks were so much longer than equine tracks, spectators in the grandstand found it impossible to follow the action all the way around, even with binoculars. So a road was constructed along the outer rail of the track from which remote-broadcast trucks could televise the entire race. The road was also convenient for trainers, who could monitor their animals at close quarters, riding in buses or four-wheel-drive vehicles alongside their entries. The trainers used walkie-talkies to communicate with their jockeys—generally boys of slight build, about 10 or 12 years old—and to give instructions as they devised strategy from the grandstand or from their vehicle. And to make sure the riders stayed on the camels, the jockeys had Velcro patches stitched to the rumps of their trousers that stuck to corresponding patches stitched onto the camels' blanket-style saddles, just behind the hump.

The humps themselves were not a problem for the jockeys: Because camels' humps store fat—not water— lean, streamlined racing camels have very small, almost vestigial, humps. Compared to an ordinary, run-of-the-desert camel, a racing camel looks like an enormous over-tall greyhound.

This tendency to leanness became more pronounced as, over the years, the animals were selectively bred for racing qualities. Shaykh Mohammed and his brother Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum funded research to improve camel breeding as well as racing performance. Until recently, camel physiology has been largely a mystery, from the animal's extraordinary tolerance of heat and its ability to survive on little water, to its reproductive peculiarities. To allow their top camels to reproduce more prolifically, camel owners were eager to develop scientific breeding programs that would take advantage of modern techniques of artificial insemination and embryo transfer. By the early 1990's, camel racing was beginning to yield its first superstars. Most were females, since males tend to accumulate bulk as they mature and are thus slower, overall, than females.

While some observers feel that the long distance of the camel races eliminates the high drama that characterizes thoroughbred racing, I rather enjoy the way the action unwinds over a longer period of time. A typical horse race is all crescendo and climax; the camel race, it seems to me, is more like a fugue, building up energy over time with minor modulations and subtle variations. The rhythm of the camel races often seems to follow the repetitive esthetic that informs many of the artistic and architectural forms of Islamic culture. Like a tapestry, a building façade, a musical composition or a long folk tale, a camel race unfolds to fill out, almost evenly, a physical space and time. When the races are televised, the broadcasters sometimes forego live commentary in favor of a soundtrack of traditional Bedouin camel songs, which adds a hypnotic rhythm to the action and also links the moment to the past. This sense of history is amplified further when the races are followed, in some cases, by new, original qasidas.

Some races, of course, have more drama than others. I had been particularly fortunate in 1990 to witness a splendid race for older camels in which one of the competitors was a camel named Mahna, owned by Shaykh Mohammed. Mahna, who was then seven years old, was unbeaten in five years of racing, and had been entered in the Gold Cup, the culmination of the big three-day meet at the end of the season, the Grand Camel Races.

Mahna, as Shaykh Mohammed explained at the time, had been bred from a line of fast, light-boned camels. "Her line was bred to save lives," he said. "The Bedouins used to breed a line of camels to be fast, to be able to run away from danger or to attack." She was descended from two sires whose bloodlines had been particularly treasured by local camel men. "All the poets talk about these lines," said Shaykh Mohammed.

From the beginning of the race, it was clear that Mahna was born to run. She was a true Camelus dromedarius, in the sense that the species name derives from the Greek words for "running" and "racecourse." Breaking away from the tightly packed group of 18 other camels, Mahna bounded to the lead, gliding along fluidly. Her action seemed effortless by comparison to many of the other camels I had observed during the meet. One challenger after another came up alongside, only to gradually wilt and fall back. As she approached the top of the final stretch, her lead continued to widen, and she crossed the finish line in a record time. She had covered the 10 kilometers in 17 minutes and 58 seconds. Like a winning thoroughbred, Mahna represented the quintessence of her breed, an animal whose natural strengths had been refined and directed to a specific, new goal: Not just survival, but victory. Watching her run, I realized that while modern camel racing had been established for practical and symbolic reasons, it had begun to take on its own momentum.

When I returned to Dubai recently, I found that camel racing has continued to grow and develop, and that research into the camel's physiology has progressed. "Racing has become more popular and more commercial," says Dr. Ahmed Billah, veterinary consultant to Shaykh Mohammed. Billah has helped oversee the shaykh's racing operation for more than a decade. "It is as much an industry now as a sport. There are more tracks, more races, more prizes, and more camels. It is more competitive now." There is a greater variety of distances in the races, too, he says, although most are still quite long. The racing season now spans November to March, and besides the 14 major tracks in the UAE as a whole, many towns and villages have built their own local tracks, where the degree of informality varies greatly.

Microchips, too, have become part of the sport. Inserted into the ears or necks of all racing camels, they allow easy identification, help owners and race recorders keep proper records, and ensure that no "ringers"—accomplished camels disguised as newcomers—can be entered in the races. The chips also help the researchers keep track of the performance of animals of different pedigrees to determine which bloodlines are best suited for racing. And now racing camels, like thoroughbreds, are tested for illegal drugs following the races.

More surprising than such technical innovations is the astonishing improvement in race times. In just the past year, says Billah, Mahna's former record has been surpassed by a large margin. In the Gold Cup that was recently run at Nad al-Shiba, the winning camel covered the 10 kilometers in 17 minutes and seven seconds. "In the racing world, 51 seconds is a huge difference," he says.

I was glad to learn, however, that despite such advances, Mahna has not been forgotten. "Every camel that is a champion, her memory stays," says Billah. "There are pictures in the house and sweet memories of the best camels." And then, of course, there are Mahna's offspring—although so far, Billah says, Mahna has not yet produced a champion to equal her own achievements.

Billah attributes the improvements in race times to training and breeding. "Overall, there are better training regimes, more competition, better feeding," he says. The emphasis on pedigree, he adds, is beginning to pay off. Already, top camels like Mahna do not have to wait for retirement to begin breeding. With the use of modern techniques, they can have their fertilized eggs transferred to surrogate mothers for gestation while they keep on racing.

In order to learn more about breeding improvements, I talked with Lulu Skidmore, another of Shaykh Mohammed's camel consultants, who heads the Camel Reproduction Center at Nakhlee, southeast of Dubai City. Skidmore has been working in Dubai for nine years now on such techniques as artificial insemination and embryo transfer. One of the main advances made at the Reproduction Center, she says, is learning how to "super-ovulate" the top female camels like Mahna to produce more than one egg at a time, all of which can be fertilized, flushed out of the mother's uterus, and transplanted into the wombs of non-racing camels. "Just learning the camel's basic reproductive cycle," she says, "has been a challenge, because so little was known."

Similarly, the veterinarians and researchers at the Dubai Camel Hospital, a state-of-the-art facility located across from the Nad al-Shiba track, have often had to start from scratch in their attempts to diagnose the problems and diseases of racing camels. "The camels are always teaching me," says Dr. Jahangir Akbar, who heads research at the hospital, where the operating tables have been modified to accommodate the camel's hump. "Every day there is a new disease, a new problem, and books are not very much help." Often, he says, he and his colleagues begin their research with information gleaned from horses or cows, which they then adapt as best they can to the camel. However, Akbar says he tries to keep treatments simple, so they can be applied by trainers and camel workers in situations far removed from the hospital. "God has made a creature to survive in the rough conditions of the desert," says Akbar. "As much as we can, we try to make things as normal as they are in the desert."

It is not just local camel trainers, however, who have benefited from the work done by Skidmore and Akbar. As a result of research at the hospital and the reproduction center, the UAE has become a nexus of international camel research, a place where experts come from other countries to learn about the latest developments in disease prevention and cure and in fertilization techniques. Camels, observes Lulu Skidmore, can be selectively bred for traits other than speed and racing prowess. The research in the UAE can thus be used, she says, for improving genetic stocks among camels elsewhere in the world, particularly in places where the animal is still crucial to survival, such as Mauritania and the Sudan. "Camel research isn't just for racing anymore," says Skidmore.

Though the racing camel is becoming more and more a luxury and a nostalgic symbol of the Arabian past, the research that it inspires is becoming more important in other parts of the world where the camel still does what camels have always done—help people survive in the desert. In a way, then, the camel is racing its way around a kind of historical circle, from necessity to sport, and back again to necessity.

Carol Flake Chapman is a free-lancer living in Austin, Texas who writes frequently about camels and horses. In 1990 she wrote a qasida for the camel Mahna on the occasion of Mahna's victory in the Gold Cup in Dubai, and read the poem on UAE television after the race.

Lorraine Chittock ([email protected]) rode with Sudanese camel caravaneers to produce her 1996 book Shadows in the Sand. She lives in Nairobi, in a house overlooking a game preserve.

This article appeared on pages 32-41 of the May/June 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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