Camel racing: The multi-million dollar industry mixing modernity and tradition

CNN  — 

Deep in the heart of the United Arab Emirates, the ancient sport of camel racing is enjoying a resurgence.

In keeping with the region’s rapid development from gulf outpost to economic hotspot, prize money for winning camels can now be upwards of $2 million.

One bull camel was reportedly sold recently for 35 million Dirham – over $9.5 million.

“It’s part of the tradition, it’s part of the culture,” accomplished endurance rider Hussain al Marzooqi tells CNN.

“There’s a hardly a house you can find that doesn’t have a camel owner in it.”

Robotic jockeys are used to train young camels, while more developed camels train with professional riders.

The sport has been around for centuries but technology is changing the game.

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Since child riders were outlawed in 2002, small robots are now frequently used instead of humans in a move towards a “more humane” form of racing.

The robots – weighing no more than 4kg – possess a walkie-talkie speaker enabling owners to deliver commands to the camels during the race, as well a small automatic whip operated by a remote control.

A fleet of cars drives alongside the camels as the race unfolds enabling owners to dictate the speed of the robot’s whip.

“It’s sound thinking to put a robot on a young camel,” says Al Marzooqi. “Before it used to be young riders on them but the UAE has always wanted to go forward doing the correct thing.”

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Track length typically varies between 1.5 and 8 kilometers, while camels that have just been broken in can expect to train between two and three kilometers per day.

“I wouldn’t say it’s particularly different to training a thoroughbred horse,” says Al Marzooqi.

“You have the feeding, you have the keeping the weight, you have the cardio work, then you have the strength work.

“Camels have been domesticated for a very long time; some say even before the horse.”

But big business means big investment. Racing camels get their blood tested every week and follow special dietary regimes.

“I know some trainers that buy honey for their camels for about 12,000 Dirhams ($3,250) per kilogram,” says Al Marzooqi.

“Some of these camels really get treated well. The average cost of keeping a camel here would be 4,000-5,000 Dirhams ($1,000-1,300) per month. It’s on a par with keeping a thoroughbred.”