A Day at the Races: The Sport of Camel Racing in Qatar
By: Nicholas Sawarna
Camel racing is one of the few vestiges left of
Qatar's heritage. The popularity of the modern
version of the sport, which traces its historical roots to
the Early Islamic Period, more than 1,000 years ago, helps
Qataris preserve and remember their folklore, legends, and
identity amidst their rapidly globalizing environment.
So for a modernized taste of Qatar as it once was, travel to
the outskirts of Doha and immerse yourself in the
dust, sand, heat, and excitement that is camel racing.
The races begin with the camels being held by their handlers
behind a mesh gate. Once the starter gun goes off, the mesh
is lifted the camels sprint forward — accompanied off-track
by a coordinated team of men driving 4x4s speeding the camel
owners alongside their charging beasts. The thundering
camels are simultaneously whipped by the robot "jockeys"
affixed to their backs, while being cursed at via microphone
by their owners, who are in hot pursuit. The excitement
comes to an epic climax as the camels come bounding down the
final stretch, breaking through the finish line, foaming
profusely at the mouth and panting in the desert heat. The
winner is then awarded a generous cash prize.
Although the race is celebrated as a staple of Qatar's
culture, there is a dark chapter in its recent history,
which is often overlooked. Until 2005, it was acceptable for
camel owners to purchase or kidnap children, as young as
four years of age, from nearby developing nations for use as
camel jockeys. The children were treated poorly by their
"owners" and purposefully kept malnourished to keep their
weight down. The Government of Qatar now has legislation in
place that severely punishes those who use child labour, and
the government cares for the camel jockey "orphans," who
have no other home. The banning of child jockeys is what
prompted the use of expensive robots to propel their camels
forward down the racecourse.
Camel racing today is an exciting and must-see attraction
for any tourist visiting Qatar. Today's camel racing is a
sport for everyone to enjoy. So the next time you are in
Doha, drive to the racecourses and enjoy this modern twist
to the exciting challenges of old Qatar.