A Day at the Races: The Sport of Camel Racing in Qatar

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.

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