Backstory: Rein of the robo-jockey

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

How do you save an age-old tradition of the desert? With a six-pound robotic camel jockey, of course ... but wait. We're getting ahead of our story. It begins, like all things here, slowly and simply.

"Years ago, before oil, we were all about camels here," begins Sheikh Hamad Bin Kasem Bin Faisal al-Thani, president of the Qatar Camel Racing Committee. "We grew up around our camels. We drank their milk, and ate them ... and we loved them."

The sheikh fiddles with his diamond-crusted cuff links and looks wistful about the not-too-distant past of this oil-rich desert on the Persian Gulf.

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His late father, he boasts, was one of the major camel owners here, and the family camels were known far and wide as racing champions. At weddings and other special occasions, the al-Thani brothers would mount their best beasts and go running through the sands, the wind in their headdresses and the cheers of the Bedouins in their ears.

Victorious camels – usually belonging to one faction of the ruling al-Thani family or another – would be painted in red saffron, recalls the sheikh, "so that far and wide, all would know who was who of the camels."

Sheikh al-Thani ponders what makes a winner. "Training and ancestry, and of course, talent." he says. His eyes misty as he remembers the glory days, he reaches to soccer superstardom to find the right agility comparison: "We had some real Ronaldinhos on the camel circuit." A miniature gold model of a dromedary on his desk topples over and brings the sheikh's attention back to the present.

Times have changed. Discovery of oil and natural gas – and enormous, sudden wealth – shifted people's priorities, he explains. "People started working, and printing money, and caring about different things, like cars," al-Thani sighs. "People began selling camels and going to the movies."

Cheering for a humped animal loping around the desert at 25 miles an hour in the scorching heat suddenly lost some of its appeal when the new option of an evening watching Hollywood blockbusters at an air-conditioned multiplex was introduced to the mix. "This was very sad," says al-Thani.

The emir of Qatar, an avid camel owner and racer himself, started campaigns to preserve his kingdom's traditions. Rulers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) all did the same. Camel breeders were offered free land and veterinary care; camel chow (mainly dates and a mixture of cow oil and flour) was subsidized. Red saffron paint prizes went out – and in came royal-sponsored and royal-size incentives. Soon, with Mercedes Benzes and Toyota Land Cruisers waiting at the finish line, the sport began to see something of a regional revival.

But another more serious camel crisis was brewing.

Over the years, as the national sport had become more competitive and the prizes more lucrative, heavyweight owners and trainers got off the humps, and smaller and lighter riders mounted. By the early 1990s, it was normal for boys as young as 5 and 6 to be holding the reins. Many of these kids were foreigners: youngsters from Sudan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who'd roamed across the deserts looking for work.

Soon, Human Rights Watch took notice, putting out a cry against trafficking in children. The US State Department lambasted Qatar and other Gulf countries, saying they were abusing the boys. And the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) insisted the minors be taken off the race courses and put in shelters and schools. It was only a matter of time before a class-action suit was filed in Miami against the UAE and its rulers.

In time, and as a result of the various charges, the problems were addressed: thousands of child jockeys around the Gulf were returned home, and riders under 18 were banned from the sport. UNICEF was satisfied, but going back to adult riders slowed the speed of the race and further sank its popularity. "And there was still so much complaining on the Internet," explains al-Thani, "... so many stories saying we had hit and starved the kids that many [camel owners] left camel racing because their dignity was hurt."

***

It seemed like the golden days of camel racing were gone forever.

And then technology saved the day.

It was 2002, and engineer Elmutaz Bin Hamza, together with his friends at the Qatar Science Club, was tinkering around with used car remotes, battery packs, fiberglass, and cordless drills and dreaming of a better future for camel racing. Working with the encouragement of the emir and the backing of the newly formed National Robotic Jockey Committee – the team soon built the very first robotic camel-jockey prototype.

The original robot was heavy, fell off the camel's hump, melted in the 122 degree F. heat, and, significantly, could not differentiate signals from one remote to another – a big minus that led to camel collisions and general bedlam at the race track.

"There were some kinks that needed ironing out," admits Mr. Hamza, today the assistant manager of the Raqbi Center which manufactures the robots. But once the prototype was done, a Swiss robotics company – K-team SA – was brought on board to help, and in 2004, a new robot mounted up. Neighboring Gulf countries took similar steps, and advances in technology have created one improved robotic camel jockey after another.

The latest version, launched this year, weighs less than seven pounds, is less than a foot tall and is capable of whipping the camel at varying speeds and pressures, and in different positions. The robots have speakers embedded in them so that trainers can give direction to the animals. "As long as they feel they're getting attention, they're content," says Hamza.

Races today – typically six miles long – feature parallel tracks. The camels – with robots dressed up in colorful cotton jerseys and jockey caps strapped on – run on the inside racetrack. And the sheikhs, owners, and trainers – piled into four-wheel drive vehicles – follow the races on an outside, paved lane, screeching instructions into the remote controls and pressing the "whip on behind" button like there was no tomorrow.

With the revival of the sport, camel prices are climbing. Al-Thani bought a beauty of a runner last month for $400,000. Another sheikh reportedly put down $1.5 million recently. The September to May season here in Al Shahaniyya, an hour outside Doha has so far been packed with spectators. And camel-racing publication subscriptions are up.

"Two years ago, we thought it was all over. Prices were way down to $2,000 a camel and people said robots would never catch on ... but it's been a major hit," says al-Thani.

"It turns out [to be] cheaper to use a robot than a kid," continues the sheikh, calculating that by the time the boys were fed and clothed, and their fathers paid off, these child jockeys were costing far more than the approximately $1,000 a month it costs to maintain a robot.

"Also," he adds, "when a robot falls from a camel you just throw it out, you don't have to deal with the headache or with any fathers."

Suleiman Abdullah Hamed came to Qatar as a child at age 4 and grew up racing. "We had fun on the camels," he says. "Sometimes we complained because they starved us. But let's not discuss that now," he suggests.

A lanky teenager today, he has become a trainer at the race tracks and a robotics enthusiast.

"The first robots were altogether ridiculous, and we would fall over laughing," he says. "But now, it's better. The robots can hit harder, and no kids fall down and get stepped on. Wonderful."

"God is amazing," he concludes and gives a nearby camel a friendly smack. "Wonderful."

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