DUBAI // Three years after robots replaced human jockeys, camel racing has lost none of its allure in the UAE and has become more accessible for expatriates and tourists, authorities said yesterday as the Dubai racing season wound up. "It is safer and more comfortable," Rashid al Swadi, the deputy manager of the Dubai Camel Racing Club, said minutes after the final race. "This has always been a popular sport. We upgraded the traditions of our fathers and grandfathers."
The UAE and other Gulf countries were previously criticised because of the use of children as camel jockeys. The practice is now banned in the UAE. This and other changes are making the sport more accessible to non-Emiratis, according to Dr Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, who has been following camel racing for decades. "It was a very good impetus," he said.
"Racing is slowly becoming more and more popular, especially with tourists. Before visitors were not allowed in with cameras. There were checkpoints and police everywhere and it was very tense. Now you can go everywhere you want." Expats and tourists at the track yesterday were all enthusiastically photographing the most memorable moments of the races - the animals nearing the finish line, accompanied by an armada of 4x4 vehicles carrying excited owners and trainers, and the first three finalists of each run, their heads and necks smeared with saffron, being paraded in front of the spectators.
The Dubai racing season started on March 1, when only young camels, aged two, were racing. The races vary depending on the age and gender of the camels, the distance and the breed of the animals. Two different breeds are used - purebred local camels and a cross between local and Sudanese breeds. The thoroughbreds are lighter and faster, which is why they race separately. The final four races of the Dubai season were reserved for animals owned by members of the Gulf's royal families. Afal, a female thoroughbred owned by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, won the first of the four afternoon races. The other three winners belong to Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai.
Camel racing became a professional sport after the discovery of oil in the UAE. Since then it has come a long way, said Dr Wernery, with improved veterinary care, training and nutrition producing faster animals. In addition, racing is now an industry, with 200,000 camels racing in the UAE alone, he said. The camel races come to Abu Dhabi next month and then go to Qatar, Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah.