x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Camel festival's thrill of the track

Seventy cars and more than Dh7 million in cash prizes are up for grabs at the Camel Race Festival at Al Sawan.

More than 5,000 camels from the GCC region are competing in the Camel Race Festival.
More than 5,000 camels from the GCC region are competing in the Camel Race Festival.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // "This is a race for cars and a race for camels," says Ali al Khatri. Watching the action at the 19th annual Camel Race Festival at Al Sawan racetrack, one can see his point. As the camels clatter around the track, a gaggle of SUVs and 4x4s keep pace, their occupants shouting encouragement at the animals.

Seventy cars and more than Dh7 million (US$1.9m) in cash prizes are up for grabs. Camels with the week's fastest times qualified for the final six races yesterday, and a chance to win one of three trophies - the President's Cup, the Prime Minister's Cup and the Sheikh Saqr Cup. Mr al Khatri, 30, works for the Army in Abu Dhabi. He tunes the radio of his white Toyota Landcruiser to 115.2AM, where he finds commentary on the races. His brother, Saeed, 25, sits in the back. Their friend, Falah, sits shotgun. About 20 cars are packed beside them on the inside track. More than 40 are opposite.

The race covers six kilometres, the full length of the Al Sawan track. It is the 16th race of the morning and the track is buzzing with energy. More than 5,000 camels from around the GCC are competing at the festival. Camel handlers hold animals steady at the starting gate. Ddrivers rev their engines in anticipation. The bell rings, the gate lifts, the handlers jump out of the way and the camels thunder forward. The 4x4s lurch past in a cloud of dust. Mr al Khatri's vehicle speeds forward, inches from the other 4x4s.

Horns beep, men shriek, camels storm the track and the race is on. This is a relatively small race, with fewer than 20 contestants. Other races this week have had as many as 80. For every animal, there is at least one 4x4 alongside it in support. Striding forward on knobby knees, with its lips flopping and froth flying, the running camel has a beauty that is all its own. Mr al Khatri, the army worker, shouts greetings to other drivers as he tears down the track. Some cars are driven up dunes for a better vantage point.

One kilometre from the finish, the pack spreads and there is a sprint for the line. Men lean out of windows and sunroofs, thumping on car doors and yelping for their favourite camel to giddy-up. Radios are turned to full blast and drivers click remote controls frantically, urging the robot jockeys to whip their camels harder. The race is over in just under 10 minutes. Mr al Khatri's camel comes in fourth, but he is still a winner. All camels that finish in the top 10 are guaranteed prizes that range from hundreds to thousands of dirhams.

However, camel racing is more about lifestyle than money. Hamad al Khatri, 30, divides his time between his work as an electrical engineer in Abu Dhabi and the RAK track. "When I was three, I started riding camels," he says. "When I reached 12, I started training them - new camels, very wild camels." Prize money at least covers the costs of keeping a camel, paying for its rich diet of fodder, dates, honey and clarified butter.

The races run from 7am to 9.30am and start again at 2pm. Throughout the day, the track is full of activity. Saudi vendors hawk honey and dates from the back of their lorries. Syrians sell German-made remote-control jockeys with faux-satin jackets and little caps. Sudanese camel traders sleep 10 to a tent on hay and blankets when they are not drinking rich coffee. Weaving in and out of all this are hundreds of camels and their handlers, usually from Bangladesh or Pakistan.

In the grandstands, sheikhs and patrons eat sumptuous Emirati fare and watch the races on giant plasma television screens. When clouds of dust roll in from a distance, it means the camels and the 4x4s are approaching the finish and all eyes turn to the track. Ali bin Rasheed, Dubai's camel kingpin, tucks into breakfast. He dines in his own room. Some of his camels are worth millions of dirhams. "In the 1950s, I had maybe three to five camels," he says. "Now, I have a lot of companies and buildings, and all this comes from camels."

On the track, owners prepare their camels and 4x4s for another race. "I love camels because they're from God," says Jassim Mohammed, 20, from Al Ain, who has brought three camels. "They are the same as people." @Email:azacharias@thenational.ae