Camel races in Qatar took me back in time: to a time when bedouin Arabs were indebted to the camel. Long before the skyscrapers and the roads appeared for Ferraris and Lamborghinis, these beasts of burden were integral to the lives of the nomadic Bedouins.
Camels- as you may or may not know- are in integral part of life for many gulf country citizens. Before oil became THE precious commodity, camels were a valuable source of wealth. Not just used to transportation but also offered as gifts at wedding, the camel has always been a multi-purpose animal- their wool was used to make clothes, rugs and tents, and their milk nourished the people of the desert. Not to mention their meat was integral part of the cuisine as many other animals are not native to the region.
Basically, camels contributed heavily to the existence of these countries. And hence the practice of owning, nurturing and tending to camels is still very much alive today. But- locals have take it one step further. Camels have been racing informally since the 7th century but in the last few years, it’s become a formal sport, attracting participation from a host of neighbouring countries. Camels are purchased for obscene amounts of money and prize winnings for champion camels are on par with many more well known sporting events in the Western World.
Welcome to the Formula 1 of the desert- Camel Racing.
How to visit?
I arranged my experience with Murex Tours. This was not sponsored or discounted in anyway, my friends & I paid 155QAR each. We were fetched from MIA park and driven to Shehaniya to watch the races. Along the way, Sherif (our guide) gave us knowledge about the races, the history and told us what to expect when we got to our destination.
Sherif co-ordinated with me about the dates when we could go, the timings of the races and also got the requisite permission for us to be there ( allegedly, if the Emir attends, then its a problem to have members of the public around).
There are many different kinds of races- there are races for the general public to race their camels, race days for only the royal family and the season is capped by the Emir Cup- 11 days of the most prestigious and & competitive races. We went for day 1 of the Emir Cup. The winner of each race receives 100,000QR (about $25,000 USD) and a new SUV; subsequent winners get 10,000QR ($2,500) less until 10th place.
The races all take place in Shehaniyah- its an area around 45 minutes outside of Doha where camel racing seems to be the main focus of the town.
Just so you know- entrance to the races are free and anyone can attend. However if you want to take a tour, you will get a behind the scenes look with access to different vantage points as well as a safe place to watch the races (will discuss this further below). If you’re strapped for cash you can definitely drive yourself to Shehaniyah, park your car and watch the races at the finish line. There are bathroom facilities at the race track and shops nearby to purchase snacks.
What happens at the races?
Camel racing has a very different set up to other races; you will not be sitting on stands or watching on a big screen. Rather, camel racing involves drivers chasing after their camels to urge them on – and spectators rushing to follow the action. So you’re in a vehicle, trying to keep track of the progress of the camels as well as the other drivers- many of whom are focused on urging their camels on via- walk talkies- as they run. It was chaotic- to say the least.
The spectator track is split as you can see above – the inner ring is for the trainers, camera crew or royal family; everyone else fights for position on the outer ring. Police cars are patrolling as well because accidents are par for the course when everyone is focused on their camels!
Let’s just say I was glad I wasn’t driving.
Note: You CAN drive your own vehicle around the track as long as its a large SUV.
What can I do there?
Other than watching the camel races in Qatar, if you do the tour you will get information about the robots they use to race with instead of jockeys. Child jockeys used to be used (due to their size and lightness) however this became uncomfortably linked to child trafficking from the poorest countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Luckily, in 2004 Qatar banned this practice and robots are used instead. The robots are therefore designed to be as close to human form possible without adding weight: donning racing silks, a helmet and even men’s perfume.
You will also be allowed to be at the starting point of the race as well as the finishing point so you see the camels everywhere. Look out for the winning camels- they have their legs coated with a thick mixture of henna and water so that their success is easily recognized. Each camel is decked out in a colored “saddle” with matching jockey adornment – for example, the Emir’s camels wear maroon & white, while Sheikh Jassim’s sport blue & yellow. Camels from Saudi Arabia can be spotted in green.
Please note that these are camels bred purely for racing; they are not used to human touch other than their trainers and you are not permitted to go near them for safety reasons. YOU CANNOT RIDE THE CAMELS.
Facts about racing camels:
Camels start their race career at age 2. Young camels are placed on the track with retired racers, and run along to learn the sport. Camels train twice daily for about 45 minutes each session and are fed specific diets of grains, dates and honey to keep them in good health.
Camels run in age groups – between 2 and 4, they run 4-5 km (2.5-3 mile) tracks; 5-6 year old camels graduate to 7-8 km (4.3-4.9 mile) tracks; and the older camels run the full 10km (6.2 mile) races. Camels retire at about 10 to become trainers. Camels must race a minimum of 24mph (40kmph) to qualify, and can go up to 40mph (65kmph).
The price of a racing camel can range from 100,000QR (about $25,000 USD) and can go for 1,000,000QR ($250,000) at an auction for the best bloodlines.
Is it worthwhile?
Personally, I think that its very educational and informative to go on such a tour when visiting the camel races in Qatar. I learnt a lot that I wouldn’t have otherwise and it was really interesting to be able to go behind the scenes of these races. However I wouldn’t go again.
Why? Because I couldn’t ascertain with absolute certainty that the camels were being treated humanely.
They appeared to be well fed, cared for and well trained but there was some scarring on some of them that made me wonder whether it was just wear & tear of muscles or something more sinister.
Unless you are really interested in this sport, you would probably be fine just to turn up and watch from the side of the track. While it was thrilling to be a part of the races, it wasn’t a highlight for me. I also think children would get very bored, very quickly.
WHAT ARE THE RATINGS ON PANDA’S RATING SCALE?
Las tips when visiting the camel races in Qatar:
Dress modestly – no shorts or sleeveless tops.
Dispose of your garbage in the appointed bins or take it back to Doha with you.
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Have you been to the camel races in Qatar? Or have I just put it on your list? Let me know in the comments below!