The gleaming towers of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates present a very modern face to the world, but the UAE’s traditional culture remains strong.
One area in which this manifests itself is sport – and, in particular, the excitement and big-money stakes associated with camel racing.
Camels racing connects every Emirati with their cultural heritage and remains tremendously popular.
Back in 1971, when the UAE gained its independence from Britain, camels were an integral part of the lives of Bedouins who lived in the desert.
They were described as a gift of god, and made it possible to live in the desert heat by providing transport, clothing, milk and meat.
As the years passed, and the UAE was transformed by its oil wealth, camel riding became a popular tourist attraction.
Camel racing takes place at 15 tracks around the country, and the season for it runs in the cooler months from November to April.
The animals are usually trained to start racing at the age of three, and their careers usually last only for two or three seasons.
It takes up to three months to train a camel for an important race, and professional trainers are employed to get them ready.
During the season, the camels are required to exercise and eat a specific diet, which usually contains oats, bran, dates and cow’s milk.
A two-day event is held annually in Abu Dhabi, bringing together camel racing fans from around the globe.
In the past, winners were presented with life essentials such as food and livestock, but these days they are gifted cars, cash and trophies.
Race distances vary from 4km to 10km, and each event can feature anything between 15 and 70 camels.
As the sport grows in international acclaim, it continues to grow as a national sport in the UAE – 12 of the 15 tracks were built in the 1990s.
Moving with the times
There are now over 14,000 active Arabian camels in the UAE, and the best racers are treated like royalty, with stables employing thousands of staff, so the sport also has a great impact on the economy.
And although camel racing is in part a celebration of Emirati traditions, it has also moved with the times.
The United Arab Emirates was the first to stop the use of children under the age of 15 as jockeys when Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced a ban on in 2002.
Child jockeys remain a controversial issue in the sport across the region, but other countries including Qatar have since followed the UAE’s example.
The UAE now issues penalties including jail sentences and bans from the sport for those found using children as jockeys.
The stakes are increasingly high, however, with owners winning up to $2m. One camel was recently sold for 35m dirhams, which is over $9.5m.
The sport may have been around for years, but the money involved and technology used now is certainly changing the game.