The Start of the Race
The camels were held back by green netting. Their handlers stood tense in front of them, holding onto their ropes. Arab riders on large camels jostled by their robot counterparts on smaller camels. Then, with a crack, the netting shot up and the handlers went scampering out of the way as the camels galloped off, closely followed by their beeping and hollering owners.
Shahhaniya. Head out of Doha along Al Rayyan road. Follow the signs to Dukhan. A few kilometres after passing Al Rayyan football stadium, you will come to a roundabout. Take the first exit, and turn left about a kilometre further on, just after the Oryx sign.
At the start of the race the camels are accompanied by older camels and their jockeys. At a certain point they are released, and only followed by their owners. When the owners press the whip, the whip hand of the jockeys whirs round with an electric sound that can be heard clearly from the side of the race track, cracking the camel with a series of whacks on its rear end. You can get up close for the start and finish of the camel race, or watch it on TV from the stadium.
Until just a few years ago, children as young as four were purchased from their parents or kidnapped and sold into use as jockeys. See Mental Mayhem for an account of child jockeys being used, or the Ansar Burney Trust for some disturbing pictures and stories. While this was already illegal, Qatar has now introduced severe punishments for anyone caught using child jockeys, and is going to greater lengths to enforce these laws, in contrast to some other countries in the area. They have also established an orphanage for children whose parents cannot be found. Happily, since 2005 we have seen no child jockeys, and there are always plenty of police to make sure everyone was obeying the law.
Replacing the children are robot jockeys. These are controlled by the camels' owners who are following in the four wheel drive vehicles. Not only can the owners control the robots' arms to whip the camels and pull the reins, they can also hurl abuse at the camels through speakers. The robot jockeys weigh about 26 kilos and cost about five and a half thousand dollars, which compares to about two thousand for a child.
The Future of Camel Racing
Until now, camel racing has not been a mainstream sport, with many Qataris looking down upon it. Information can be difficult to find, and it's certainly under-exploited as a tourist attraction. This may change - the National Olympic Committee is now having serious discussions as to whether to make it part of the Gulf Cup.
Shahinaya Race Track: +974 44 87 2028Also see: Camels: God's Gift to the Bedouin