CHRIS KUTSCHERA 30 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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DUBAI : Camel Races, a New Breed of Jockeys

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Young Jockeys riding camelsThe traditional sport of camel racing is a serious  business in the Gulf. In Dubai a camel which has proved itself by winning several races can catch the eye of a sheikh and change hands for a fantastic amount of money -- sometimes as much as 20 million dirhams (almost $5,5). It seems all Emirates’ Bedu dream of raising a champion. Mohammed Ben Thani of Dubai is confident that one day it will happen to him: “I have already been offered two million dirhams for Shabia, a female camel, but I turned it down, I don’t need the money”. Mohammed Ben Thani is leaving Dubai in a few hours for Al Ain and another race meeting. He still does not know whether he would prefer to win the first prize of a Mercedes 500, or the second -- a Range Rover. In any event, he will be happy to let the jockey take away an envelope containing a few banknotes, $75 for a small race, up to a pursue of $1.500 for the most prestigious events.

Until five or six years ago, camel jockeys were a mixed bunch but since the entrance of wealthy sponsors such as Sheikh Mohammed -- one of the ruler’s sons -- into the arena, the sport has assumed an almost British “sophistication”. This has transformed the style of camel racing in the Gulf into a business which, some believe, is much too important to be left in the hands  of adults, these days jockeys  are real lightweights. A Pakistani veterinarian working full time in a local sheikh’s racing stable explained: “The lighter the jockey, the better the chance of winning, there is nothing lighter than a six- or seven-year-old kid. When a jockey gets to be more than 20  kilogrammes in weight he is sent back to school”.

Very young jockey with his fatherAs yet Majid, Massood and Ali, three young Pakistani jockeys have not reached that fateful stage. Each child reveals one or two missing front teeth confirming their ages at around six or seven years; their tiny bodies cannot be more than 15-17kg in weight. Sitting cross-legged on a carpet on Mohammed Ben Thani diwan (household), not far from the plot of land where he keeps his camels, they watch for perhaps the twentieth time the video-cassette recording of a race they rode last Friday. To be a jockey is a tough job; waking at dawn they take their camels to an eight kilometre closed circuit race track, where they practise and train the animals until the sun becomes too hot to work. Ali, the youngest of the trio, can hardly keep his balance on the back of the camel, and, like many of the young jockeys must wear trousers fitted with special adhesive velcro strips, which help keep him attached to the saddle.

During the early morning training period Mohammed Ben Thani follows the training camels in a pick-up track. As he drives along the camel truck he uses a walkie-talkie to communicate with his young jockeys: “Speed up, start galloping”, or “slow down, trot”, and as they are near the end of the race track he yells “beat him with your stick, harder, harder”. Reclining on a carpet, sipping bitter local coffee, Mohammed Ben Thani says that sometimes the lad put the walkie-talkie behind the camel’s ear, so the animal can hear his master’s voice -- but it is probably no more than a Bedu joke...

Although camel rearing and racing is undoubtedly big business for the Bedu, the sheikhs are the biggest owners by far. Sheikh Mohammed, the UAE’s defence minister, owns more than 5.000 camels -- 2.000 for racing and 3.000 for breeding -- while one of his brothers, Sheikh Hamdan, owns at least 2.000.

On the race track“The sheikhs of Dubai have contributed a lot to the improvement of the breed”, explains one of the Pakistani vets in a local sheikh’s employ. “Two years ago the local Bedu still refused to let me inject their camels, they believed only in the traditional treatments. For years they maintained the best way to tell if a female camel was pregnant was from the way she carried her tail. These days we do urine tests. We had similar problems with feeding, the Bedu gave their beasts only barley to eat but now they are fed a more balanced diet of maze, soya and vitamins, this is the way the sheikhs are breeding champions. The Bedu saw that these tactics brought profit to the sheikhs and now they have accepted the same methods”.

For the most part only the sheikhs have stud camels. “A nice stud animal is taken care of almost as if he were a human being”, says Dick Collins, an English veterinarian who has been practising in Dubai for more than 20 years. “It is big favour if someone allows you to take your female to their stud. As in the top horse racing fraternities, a Bedu camel breedeer will breed from only one or two choice females and hope that they will give birth to a champion, preferably a female because females are faster”.

In fact, explains Dick Collins, as well as being a traditional and highly popular sport the popular fancy for camel racing is also a clever way of recycling money among the Emirates less educated Bedu population. “If they were given large sums of money, they would be prey to swindlers, but this camel breeding business keeps the Bedu on the outskirts of the cities, while allowing them to maintain their traditions and earn an income with dignity”.

(The Middle East magazine, January 1990;  VSD, N° 607, 20 Avril 1989)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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