When the camels thunder around the racetrack in the desert outside Sweihan this week, much more will be at stake than the golden swords on offer for the winning riders.
To many young Emiratis, for whom financial prosperity and the high-rise cities of the coast have been constants throughout their lives, events such as these give them an opportunity to learn skills known to their grandfathers but in danger of disappearing amid the headlong rush to modernisation.
It was a risk recognised early on by the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the nation, who feared that oil revenues would threaten what he called the “real wealth” of the country – its young people and their understanding of their past.
So when the camels line up on Thursday for the first of 30 races it will mark more than just another competition, says Mohamed Maarouf of the Emirates Heritage Club, which organises the biannual festival.
“Sheikh Zayed – God rest him – said a nation without a past is a nation with neither a present nor a future,” says Mr Maarouf.
“Camel races are part of the desert heritage. It’s to show the young people how their fathers were doing things before.”
But not exactly as before. Just as Sheikh Zayed envisioned for the country, there is a blend of the old and the new at the five-day festival, which starts tomorrow.
Elsewhere in Abu Dhabi emirate, live jockeys have been replaced by remote-controlled robots during camel races. Here the camels have live riders. Nevertheless, they also race with helmets, back supports, medical authorisation and, for those under 18, permission from their parents.
“It’s not,” adds Mr Maarouf with a smile, “like the warriors.”
The camel races are just one element of the festival. For each of the first three days, before the races begin, a camel beauty competition will be held.
The races are also held against a backdrop of a heritage village where traditional skills, ranging from horsemanship to folkloric singing and crafts, are practised in ways that would not be unfamiliar to Emiratis who lived a hundred years ago or more.
The equestrian skills include a version of the sport known as tent-pegging – using a spear to skewer an imaginary tent peg stuck in the ground. The sport, which is thought to have been used as training for collapsing the tents of enemies in dawn raids, developed in both Arabia and the subcontinent, where it is better known.
“It was Arabian, not just locally in the UAE,” says Mr Maarouf.
“Before, warriors [used it] during war. They don’t use it any more. They use it for sport and ... for training.”
Emirati men in rows using their camel sticks as props also sing verses sung by generations of their forefathers.
Near them, lines of Emirati women in brightly hued clothes sway in unison, rhythmically swinging their long black hair in slow motion. This sight is itself a sign of change; in earlier times, the women would never have danced in front of the men.
Elsewhere in the heritage village, women decorate hands with henna and prepare traditional meals to be shared as the embodiment of Bedu hospitality.
In the sand, young girls, using their hands and feet to build a gradually rising wall, play a jumping game that the grandmothers sitting in the tents behind them used to enjoy.
Only Emiratis can participate in the festival’s races and activities, but at the previous festival in November visitors were warmly welcomed.
Mr Maarouf says that of all goings-on at the festival, two are especially emblematic of the traditional way of life.
“Life in the UAE or Arabia depended on two things – the camel and the palm tree,” he says. “The palm tree is good, so here in Abu Dhabi we have more than 40 million. It’s very important to see and it represents life before.
“The origins of the camel belong to the desert. Wherever you have desert enough, you’ll find camels.
“The relation between man and camel is very deep and goes a very long way. It’s a good relationship if you live with the camel for a few days. You really have a good relation.
“Camel races are part of the desert heritage. It’s to show the young people how their fathers were doing things before. They’re interested in camel races and palm trees and how they make hospitality and how people did things.”
In the old days, the camel racers would have been from different tribes, or from rival groups within the same tribe. They also pitted young against old.
Now, the races are by age group, with the riders ranging from 14 to 70. The younger riders race three kilometres, while the oldest ones, in the 60-70 age group, ride for 500 metres.
Mr Maarouf is especially encouraged that the most popular categories in the camel races are those for younger riders.
“For the old people ... sometimes we get maybe 20 or 30, sometimes five,” he says. “For the youths, a very big number register.”
History, however, favours the older riders, who remember the time when camels were the primary means of transport in the then Trucial States, before federation in 1971, and have experienced the idiosyncrasies of the animals’ behaviour.
Mr Maarouf recalls one race in which a rider had established a commanding lead until his camel’s social traits took over. “Camels run in groups,” he says. “Sometimes you see a camel running alone but they can’t reach the end line unless he can see the group. This camel was going to reach the end line and get the golden sword and the Dh20,000 [US$5,400)] prize but he stopped and the rider tried and tried to get him to go. The others went past and I think he finished sixth or seventh.”
The unfortunate rider would at least still have received some prize money.
The winners are awarded golden swords and cash prizes by Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, the Deputy Prime Minister and chairman of the Heritage Club. However, the first 10 riders all receive some prize money, with the 10th collecting Dh3,000 for his trouble.
But it is not just about the money. Mr Maarouf says young Emiratis are genuinely eager to experience and understand the traditional ways.
“Young people want to have information. They ask ‘How can we ride a horse, how can we ride a camel, how can we sail without a ... fast engine in the boat, how can we make cultivation with no irrigation?’
“It needs to be accepted in a new generation [so] the old generation doesn’t lose their identity. The country’s young people must enquire about our history and go back to study it again and again, whether it be our recent history, or that of the far distant past, until they understand what has taken place in this country and how past generations were able to cope with life here.”
Echoing Sheikh Zayed’s words, he adds: “They should do this because he who does not know his past will certainly not understand the present. If man knows the past, he will, too, understand the present, and will from that understand what lies ahead in the future.”