In the expanse of wind-carved sand just outside of the air-conditioned metropolis of Dubai, is the first officially licensed school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) dedicated to teaching camel riding.
For a country with a strong cultural connection to these animals, it might seem surprising that there aren’t more such schools. What’s even more surprising is that in a traditionally male-dominated practice like camel riding, one of the two founders of the Arabian Desert Camel Riding Center (ADCRC) is a woman – 30-year-old German expat Linda Krockenberger.
The school was established in January 2021 a little over 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Dubai, on the cusp of the Al Marmoom desert in a farming settlement called Al Lisaili. In this socially conservative area, Krockenberger says it’s uncommon to see women walking in the streets – and before the school arrived, women here never rode camels.
The school now has 30 regular riders – most of them women. “Initially, we didn’t target women in particular,” she says. “With me being a woman and being a part of the school, people saw it as unique, and it drew a lot of attention.”
Camel riding for all
For thousands of years the Arabian Peninsula has been home to domesticated dromedary camels. Dromedaries, a single-humped species also known as the Arabian camel, were historically used for transport and as a source of milk, meat, wool, and hide.
These days, camel festivals are popular in the UAE and camel racing is big business, featuring robot jockeys and with the prize money for the biggest races reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Krockenberger moved to the UAE in 2015 to work in hospitality and fell in love with the desert environment. Having ridden horses back in Germany she now wanted to try camels. She says she spent years trying to find someone in Dubai who could provide her with a space to ride them, but her gender was an obstacle.
“The only response I received was ‘you can ride but only if we ride at night, in darkness’ or ‘it will be good if you can dress like a boy,’” she says. “I couldn’t do that. I don’t want to do something that’s considered inappropriate.”
“That was a big conflict for me,” she continues. “I wanted to be reassured that we can dress modestly and be culturally appropriate, but we can be women.”
She eventually found a willing teacher and mentor in Obaid Al Falasi, 52, an Emirati man who has worked with camels throughout his life. With his guidance, Krockenberger mastered camel riding and together they decided to open the school, making it accessible for anyone who wanted to learn.
Aided by Al Falasi’s respected position in the community, Krockenberger says they were awarded the first ever license for a camel riding center in the UAE.
She explains that the center being licensed is the only way for women to ride camels, “otherwise it’s culturally not acceptable.”
“The fact that we are officially recognized is really important,” says Krockenberger. “What we do has wider implications for women in the region because we do it in an institutional capacity. There is validation that then slowly makes its way down to communities.”
Krockenberger says the female riders initially felt that they had to show the community that they could ride safely. “For the first few rides we carried tension with us,” she says. “We felt like it was the only shot to prove that women can ride too. So, we didn’t want to mess up our opportunity.”
Having made their point, the women have taken their riding to the next level, with Krockenberger establishing the country’s first all-female camel racing team. The ADCRC hosted the first official women’s camel race in the UAE in November 2021, watched by more than 200 spectators, and there are plans for more races to come.
The camels can run up to 40 miles an hour (64 kilometers per hour) and are ridden in the traditional way without the use of metal stirrups. And unlike in most camel races, her team does not use whips. But for those who just want riding lessons, the pace is much more sedate.
“Camels are super intelligent and very emotional,” says Krockenberger. “And they form very strong connections to individual people. It’s about mastering the relationship with the animal … but a camel will always remain a little bit feral.”
Lessons cost around $40, with discounts for members. “Initially we didn’t receive many Emirati women simply because it was unheard of,” Krockenberger says. “But now emerging, there’s a really strong notion from Emirati women to cultivate or remember and rediscover their heritage, and camel riding is a way that they can do that.”
The center has had more than 40 Emirati women riding with them, and seven of these are regular riders.
Aisha Khoory, a 35-year-old housewife, began attending the school this month. She says it helps her feel connected to Emirati culture. “Riding camels reminds me of how people used to travel not long ago,” she says, adding that she found the camels calm and easy to handle. “The experience gives you a boost of positive energy.”
Krockenberger says regular her riders describe it as a form of meditation, and adds that the experience is open to all.
“Women, young people, older people, expats, locals, they just become part of this environment by sharing a common passion,” she says.