Winning by a Snout: Non-Betting Bedouins off to the (Camel) Races

'Ships of desert' pampered with swimming pools, specialty stables

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The cluster of trotting camels emerges slowly above the distant shimmer of the desert. As their loping gait brings them closer, details of their finery come clearer.

The camels are strung together like a caravan from a bygone era. But instead of embroidered silk finery hung on an Arab nobleman, the cortege is led by a jockey wearing a horse-racing helmet.

These camels - braying their way around a six-mile-long track on the outskirts of Dubai - are a few of the Gulf emirate's stock of 10,000 racing camels.

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With the glittering modern skyline of Dubai as a backdrop, a sophisticated camel-racing industry here is blending the old and new, with modern oil wealth preserving a centuries-old tradition.

Luxury four-wheel-drive vehicles line the track during training times and accompany these pampered beasts - known through history as "ships of the desert" - back to their well-appointed stables.

With racing camels able to fetch as much as $2 million, no expense is spared to ensure their best care.

Outside the Arab world, Dubai is known more for the thoroughbred horse-racing exploits of its ruling al-Maktoum family. But here, in the most high profile of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seven states, camel racing is the sport of choice.

"Camel racing has its roots in the local population, it's what the Bedouin knows," says Ahmad Billah, a Pakistani veterinary consultant to the royal family for 17 years. "It is their sport and has been for more than 1,500 years - since the time of the Prophet Muhammad."

Betting isn't permitted, and camel racing is entirely subsidized by the government as a community service. Horse racing here, by contrast, is a commercial enterprise as it is in Europe or America.

The UAE camel center spreads for miles across the desert outside Dubai. Compounds are separated by gentle sand dunes, and the viewing stand at one end of the vast racetrack is an oasis of green grass, palm trees, and colorful flags.

The nearby camel clinic boasts camel-sized surgical wards - with a hump-sized hole in the middle - specialized X-ray machines, and an artificial insemination center that allows premier racing camels to multiply. In February 1995, the world's first frozen embryo camel baby was born here. As he matures into racing stock, he will be able to take regular swims in one of the custom training swimming pools.

For a sport that is estimated to cost the government more than $45 million, Emiratis say that no official price tag should ever be put on the preserving the glory of their ancient sport. "Camel racing is an entirely different philosophy from horse racing," says Dr. Billah. "It is done to preserve the tradition."

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