Camel Races

Camel racing is a very old and very popular sport throughout the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) (and other places with deserts like Mongolia and Australia [1]). Qatar is no exception to this rule; camel races are quite popular here among locals and expats alike, and are held from October – March while the weather is nice.

Camel racing started as a way to entertain guests at multi-day weddings, and has grown to a professional sport with entrants coming from all around the world to race and spectate.

Races are conducted weekly, with 10 – 15 races per race day (on Fridays and Saturdays). Some days are royal family race days, some are general entrant days, and the season is capped by the Emir Cup: H H the Emir’s Main Race. [2]

Entry to the competitions is free and all are welcome. We went with a tour – Murex Tours – and I would highly suggest doing the same. Not only do you get interesting camel facts and taken behind-the-scenes, you also get a nice safe vantage spot for the races themselves. More on that in a bit.

Camel racing this way

In Qatar, the camel races take place in Sheehaniya – a small town located about :45 from downtown Doha dedicated to camels and camel racing. Fun fact: sheehaniya is the local name for a plant traditionally used to cure stomachache. The racetrack is named Al Shahaniya Camel Racing Track and signs can be seen from the highway. We didn’t see it on this tour, but there is also a virtual camel city with other things to see [3].

An entire lot of SUVs waiting for race winners

The winner of each race receives 100,000QR (about $25,000 USD) and a new SUV; subsequent winners get 10,000QR ($2,500) less (no cars) until 10th place. Since this was a royal family race, ceremonial weapons were also gifted.

More valuable than a car or cash prize is the prestige earned when your camel wins. During the big competitions in March and April, the winner not only gets bragging rights, but also takes away the prestigious Golden Sword of the Father Emir H H Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. We didn’t happen to go on one of the big festival days, but we did see silver knives, spears and swords being awarded to some of the big winners.

Barely controlled chaos as we jockeyed for a good vantage of the race. This is not like horse racing, where you watch from the stands – or even falcon racing, where you wait and watch on the big screen (unless you’re in a chase car) – camel racing is up close and personal, with drivers chasing after their camels to urge them on – and spectators rushing to follow the action.

This was a lot of our view of the races – it is very clear where the some of the more unruly highway drivers learned how to do so – the track is barely contained pandemonium, with huge SUVs jockeying for position – just like the camels racing to the side.

As you can see from the above picture, the spectator track is split – the inner ring is for the royal family; everyone else fights for position on the outer ring. Some races are super busy like this one (earlier in the day); some seemed to be lower stakes and less crowded. You can’t see them in this shot, but Police cars are patrolling as well – and were actually quite impressive. They managed to signal to our driver amidst the chaos of following a race that someone in the back of the bus had removed their mask and needed to put it back on. I was in front, and I’m still not sure how either the driver or the Police could keep track of all of that at once – and keep us safe – but they did. I guess as lamented as the traffic can be here (and as dangerous as it is), there is something to be said for knowing exactly how to handle one’s machine in a stressful situation.

Caught a glimpse of this guy, who was placidly and gracefully just running his own race. I liked his attitude.
These guys – both the driver and the guy poking up out of the sun roof – are speaking to or operating the whips on their camels. It’s amazing that he managed to keep control of the car – and up with his entrant.

Guys control the jockeys with remote controls from the car with walker-talkies that allow them to work the whip arm of the jockey + talk to the camel, telling them to “yalla!” (Hurry!)

Camel jockeys

Camel-less jockeys. Qatar banned the use of children as camel jockeys in 2004 (kids were used because of their size and weight). Robots are now used – first generation robots were roughly the size and weight of a child; but have gotten smaller and lighter as technology has advanced, now weighing about 55lb (25kg) and featuring a speaker and long, thin, flexible whip. [4]

An attached jockey with walkie talkie affixed and whip arm at rest.

Each camel is decked out in a colored “saddle” with matching jockey adornment – for example, the Emir’s camels wear maroon & white, while Sheikh Jassim’s sport blue & yellow. Not sure who was in the black & white.

A camel tender looking after his charge
Either ready to go race or back for snacks
Camels in full rest mode
Camel minder supervising his charges. Camels wear these masks not only because they can bite (and spit) when angered, but to guard against poisoning. As I said, it’s a big deal here – and pride is on the line.

The camel staging area is actually super chill – camels are pretty calm creatures. They can be cantankerous, will spit if they’re angry, and are stubborn as all get out – but they’re also content to sit and munch. You would be too, if you had a bag full of grains, dates and honey waiting for you. Can’t really blame the couple we saw nope out of the end of the race to beeline it back to this area. Camels are also known to occasionally just refuse to start the race – and when that happens, camels can’t really be reasoned with – it’s snack time.

These camels are all lined up waiting to start. The one in the foreground is sporting henna for luck – the cuts have something to do with muscle soreness and healing; I wasn’t sure exactly what.

Camels are separated from their mothers when they are somewhere between 6 months and 1.5 years old (our tour guide said 6 months; I’ve seen 1.5 years in articles) and start their race career at age 2. Young camels are placed on the track with retired racers, and run along to learn the sport. Camels train twice daily for about :45 each session and are fed specialty diets of grains, dates and honey to ensure they have the energy needed to run a race.

Camels run in age groups – between 2 and 4, they run 4-5 km (2.5-3 mile) tracks; 5-6 year old camels graduate to 7-8 km (4.3-4.9 mile) tracks; and the older camels run the full 10km (6.2 mile) races. Camels retire at about 10 to become trainers. Camels must race a minimum of 24mph (40kmph) to qualify, and can go up to 40mph (65kmph).

The price of a racing camel can range from 100,000QR (about $25,000 USD) and can go for 1,000,000QR ($250,000) at auction for the best bloodlines. According to our tour guide, the Emir routinely purchases winning females – and it’s a mark of pride to have your camel join his stable.

From the finish line – she was off doing her own thing.
I believe this is one of the Emir’s camels making a triumphant return
Cars chasing the lead camel
The car to the back of this camel is one of the TV chase cars – Qatar has a channel dedicated to local and foreign races.

If you’re in Qatar, this is definitely something to add to the must-do list. This is one of those unique experiences you can’t really do other places.

Video from the day – chasing the camels, the starting line & finish line. The video is about 9 minutes long.

Camel Facts

Camels come in two types: the one humped Dromedary, and two humped Bactrian. Local (Arabian) camels are dromedary.

They are also huge and can grow up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) tall at the shoulder and weigh anywhere from 880 to 1,325 pounds (400-600kg). [6]

Camels are incredibly suited to desert life, with three sets of eyelids and two rows of eyelashes to keep out flying sand, and thickly padded chest and knee skin to allow them to sit comfortably – even in the middle of summer, when temperatures can reach 120F (51C). Their height also helps with this – placing their bodies far away from the heat radiating off the sandy or rocky ground.

Camels can also completely close their nostrils during sandstorms – a skill I wish humans had.

Camels have keen eyesight and a great sense of smell – which would help greatly in finding food when your environment can look like a bunch of sand or pebbly sand to the naked (human) eye.

Camel feet are very wide, and come padded with fibrous tissue – this permits them to walk silently, painlessly and stably across soft, hot sand and hard, flinty ground; something horses, donkeys and oxen cannot do.

Camels can drink 31.4 gallons (113 liters) of water in 15 minutes and are incredibly efficient at using that massive amount of water, storing any excess in the fat in their humps – which they can use to live on when water is scarce.

Camels are incredibly important in this area of the globe – both historically and culturally, serving as the backbone of Arabian life until they were replaced by modern modes of transportation and readily available imports.

Historically, camels were the most efficient way to move either yourself and your community, or your goods via the vast trading networks that cross-crossed the MENA region. Roads weren’t actually super common or necessary until the camel went out of fashion as the main mode of transportation.

Camels can carry more than even elephants – 1,000 pounds (453kg) on short hauls and up to 600 pounds (272kg) almost indefinitely. They can cover 20 – 30 miles (32-48 kilometers) per day for weeks on end, can go days without water, and can sustain themselves on less-than-ideal (for other pack animals at least) desert vegetation. [7]

Lots of plants in the desert have thorns; camels have really thick lips which allows them to eat what other animals (like goats, donkeys, horses or even oryx) cannot. [5] Camel lips are also prehensile and extendable so they can examine their food by touch before ingesting it. Which seems weird given what camels eat, but it’s a big help, I’m sure. It also makes a chewing camel look a bit comical and kind of cute, in my opinion.

Not only were camels the best mode of transportation over long distances, they were also the chief source of animal based nutrition, raw materials, and signifier of wealth.

Camel meat is a touch sweeter than beef and lower in fat. It can be tough, but is fantastic when cooked low and slow – or roasted over a fire. Camel burgers are quite delicious, but often need a little cheese or extra fat to help bind the meat together and provide juiciness. [9]

Camel milk is used in soap, for ice cream, and as creamer in coffee. It has a different fat structure than cow milk (less saturated and more saturated), has more vitamins, and is lower in lactose. The taste is also a bit sweeter than cow milk. [8] Camel milk is also used as a folk treatment (especially for kids) for diarrhea caused by rotavirus.

Camel urine was used to clean hair.

Camel dung was used as fuel – and even as a sort of diaper cream to cure rash.

Camel hair makes beautiful scarves and blankets, as well as rope.

Camel hides make great leather and rugs. Sinew makes a great glue used to bind wooden pieces together for all manner of things (like saddles and seating).

Camel humps were used as a cure for dysentery, camel marrow was used as a cure for diphtheria, and dried camel brain was used as a cure for epilepsy [7].

More super cool camel facts can be found at one of the sources used above: Aramco World. Check them out because camels are seriously cool animals.

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