Every Friday SUV-driving, mall-hopping Emirati men go back to their Bedouin roots to indulge in a day of camel racing. This traditional sport began as an event that was played out on special occasions but today it is an organised affair with millions of dirhams worth of prize money and luxury cars at stake. During the winters, thousands gather at various racetracks around the country to cheer on their desert beasts.
The sport used child jockeys until 2005 when it was banned after human rights group called out the country for child abuse. Since then, robot jockeys have replaced the children and immigrant workers from Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan train and prepare the camels for the races. During the race, the Emirati owners drive alongside the speeding camels with remote in hand controlling the whips meted out by the robot jockeys.
After the dust has settled and the scores of shiny, sports cars leave the race tracks, the human counterparts of the robot jockeys drive the camels home.
Home for most of them are tiny, one room accommodations situated close to the camel stables where the men spend their days feeding, training and walking the camels. Each room is shared by at least four to six other camel jockeys.
In the more remote areas of the UAE, many jockeys live in make-shift cloth tents in temperatures that can shoot up to 50 degrees in the summer months. But, for most of these men, this is the only way of life they know how to live.
Many jockeys confess to having worked as child jockeys but returned after they came of age to continue doing the only thing they knew how to do to make money. Many jockeys have suffered injuries during the races either being thrown off a camel or being attacked by one. The men earn roughly US$200 per month, most of which is sent back to their home countries to support their families.
Any left over money is saved for months, sometimes years before they can afford the luxury of buying a plane ticket to go home and see their families. After the dust has settled and the winners have driven off with their hefty prize money, the camels are led back to their desert stables by the jockeys and a night of making fires, cooking and listening to the radio lies ahead.
With the sound of the first azaan, the men are back at work readying the animals for races in which their jockeys will never be winners.
Written and Photographed by – Karen Dias