Camel racing: The sport of sheikhs
Written by Kate Lord Brown
To experience a truly historic Qatari sport, head west into the desert from Doha during the winter months.
Since the Early Islamic period, for over a thousand years camel racing has been an exhilarating sport enjoyed by generations across Arabia. Camels have been raced professionally in Qatar since 1972, and its devotees are passionate about this competitive and expensive sport. Over 6,000 camels from Qatar and across the Gulf travel to the racetrack at Al Shahaniya to participate each season, vying for valuable prizes including gold and silver daggers. The final, most prestigious event is the H.H. Emir’s Main Race, at which the winner is presented with the H.H. Emir’s sword.
The best camels are highly prized, and the finest animals are worth a million riyals (US$275,000). Well known as the traditional ‘ships of the desert’, these resilient and remarkable creatures can survive for up to five days without water during desert crossings, and their wide feet and slim legs help them to move easily over sand. Racing camels are also fast, sprinting at around 65kph, and sustaining speeds of 50kph over a longer distance.
Every weekend during the season, spectators head to Al Shahaniya, a settlement an hour to the west of Doha, just off the Dukhan highway. A short distance past the Al Rayyan football stadium, the racetrack is clearly signposted from the road, and the track is easily accessible to visitors. There are purpose-built illuminated oval tracks of different distances, and the camels can race up to 10km on the longest.
The camels are brought by their handlers to the starting line and readied behind a mesh screen. At the starting signal, the screen lifts and the camels thunder forwards along the track, necks extended. You see the owners’ SUVs at the heart of the racetrack start up at the same time as the camels. In the owners’ vehicles are the people controlling the high-tech robot jockeys ‘riding’ the camels, bedecked in the vibrant silks of their patrons.
The government of Qatar pioneered the development of robot jockeys in 2001, and the first successful prototypes were made in collaboration with the Qatar Scientific Club. The robots cost over US$5,000 each, and they can perform a variety of movements – whipping, controlling the reins – and the handler can also communicate with the camels via an inbuilt microphone, spurring them on to the home straight.
Beyond the barriers of the sand racetrack, ranks of spectators race around the oval, following the camels in SUVs, horns blaring. It is an extraordinary, exhilarating spectacle, and for visitors who wish to experience it up close, there is a bus which drives alongside the track as well. Visitors can arrive at the racetrack from around 9.30am to see the camels training, and they are able to relax away from the track in the grandstand area. Make sure to take water and sunscreen, and dress respectfully, and for comfort – it is a hot, dusty, exciting day in the desert, and an unforgettable way to experience a sport which truly blends the historic past and present of Qatar.
The camel racing season takes place in the cooler winter months. From September through to March, when the largest tournaments take place, you can visit Al Shahaniya to experience the races. For further information, news, and videos about racing in Qatar, and to check the dates of the racing schedule visit: labregah.net or call +974 4487 2028.