A LITTLE laid back in their movements, camels often wear a disinterested look and make one feel that they are symbols of endurance more than speed and the thrill it generates. But it could be proved wrong as camel racing is witnessing a transformation in the region. More and more men get attracted to the tracks, where they find excitement, win several millions of riyals as prize money and engage in some worthy trading of the “ships of the desert”.
The sleepy Qatari town of Al Shahaniya, located 40km towards west of Doha, comes alive on race days as it lures some of the richest men from the country and beyond to a racing track boasting modern facilities. And it was buzzing yet again last week as hundreds of camels fought it out at the two-day Qatar Challenge Festival, the final event of a seven-month calendar of activities.
“I would say it was the best season in many years as camel racing is improving steadily. It’s a sport that upholds our tradition and the love for it runs in our blood,” Qatar Hejen Racing Committee (QHRC) Vice-President Dr Mubarak Al Hajri told Doha Stadium Plus during an exclusive interview.
The Emir HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, HE Sheikh Al Qaqa bin Hamad Al Thani and the UAE President’s Advisor HE Shaikh Sultan bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, who also heads the Emirates Camel Racing Federation, were among the dignitaries who attended the festival. Qatar thus made clear of the support it continues to offer to the sport even as they are adopting various steps to curb expenditure.
The big money involved in the sport — Dr Al Hajri said the cash prize alone would come to around QR30m a season — makes it quite attractive for camel owners.
“The monetary support comes mainly from the government as our leaders love the sport and encourage our activities at Shahaniya. Some of the biggest Qatari businessmen are associated with it as they enjoy racing and find the virtual ‘Camel City’ a place to unwind themselves. They just love the camels. Naturally, the stakes are high,” said Dr Al Hajri.
Watching the camels fight it out on the track, one tends to draw comparisons with horseracing. While equestrianism has achieved a global and glamorous status, camel racing is confined mostly to the region and is yet to achieve a universal appeal, despite the money power it enjoys.
“We organise the races professionally. We’ve digitalised our offices and almost all data are available online. But camels mostly belong to the Arabian deserts and it’s tough for the sport to achieve equal status with horseracing. However, Qatar and the UAE are taking lead roles in increasing the sport’s popularity,” said Dr Al Hajri.
A horse, over a short sprint, can run close to 90kmph with its jockey spurring it on all the way. On the contrary, in camel racing, the animals have only half that speed and the sport is also devoid of that human element, which could give the spectators a missing feeling. Child jockeys were in action before, but that practice was done away with more than a decade ago after several organisations complained of human rights violations and forced labour.
It was the Father Emir HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani who took the decision to scrap child jockeys through a decree in 2004. Since then, robot jockeys, which crack the whips, are used as racers move parallel in vehicles along the running camels, and operate them using remote controls. Innovations are made and the sport is getting better.
Owners are also ensuring the topmost pedigree for their camels, who are best suited for racing at the age of four. The fierce rivalry has prompted the QHRC to set up an anti-doping lab at Shahaniya to avoid foul play. The racing authorities believe it will help them preserve the sanctity of the sport. And also its proud link to their tradition. DSP