The Lonely Planet Guide says that "these days the camel, although the most common animal in the UAE and a
symbol of the Emirates, the desert, and the Bedouins, doesn't seem to be of much use except for eating or racing."
As some of you might have guessed, the "eating" part intrigued me, so I asked about it wherever we went – I
thought perhaps it was similar to ordering horse in France. Most people looked at me as though I was
crazy to even suggest such a thing – obviously they were not of Bedouin stock. I had read somewhere that camel
tastes something like beef – finally, some exotic meat that doesn't taste like chicken – but the few people I met
who have actually tasted it, usually at a Sheik's palace, mainly recall that it was tough to chew.
We were in Dubai during the four-day public holiday of Eid al-Adha. On the third day animals, including camels,
are sacrificed to commemorate Abraham's near sacrifice of his only son Ismael to prove his obedience to God.
The child was spared when God sent a lamb to be sacrificed in Ismael's place1.
Since most people living in the city don't have room even to raise their
own goat2, there is a lively trade in animals intended for sacrifice in markets adjacent to the municipal abattoirs.
The meat doesn't go to waste, butchers cut it into parcels which people share with needy relatives and the poor.
Near Mecca, where millions participate in the Haaj, culminating in Eid, a huge meat-packing plant sacrifices and
packages fifty thousand sheep and twenty thousand camels each year and distributes it internationally. As you may
imagine, sales of meat and fish in the Islam world are down for weeks afterward. When we checked our local abattoir,
although we saw pickup-truckloads of goats and sheep for sale, there were no camels.
As for camel races, we did see one on TV. The course in Dubai (there's also one in Abu Dhabi) is held at the
"Nad al Shiba" racetrack south of the city. It's the same track where the richest horse race in the world is held,
the $6 million Dubai Cup, sponsored by the Maktoums, the ruling family of Dubai. The $2 million dollar UAE Derby,
on the same day's card, was won by "Essence of Dubai" – owned by Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum, who later came to the
Kentucky Derby with great expectations. Part of the confidence was based on the fact that the race had been changed
this year from 1-1/8 to 1-1/4 miles, the same distance as the Kentucky Derby, to give Essence of Dubai a realistic
tune-up. It helps to own the track, although it didn't yield the desired results this year – he was ninth
in the Kentucky Derby.
Camel races aren't actually held on the same track; 1-1/4 miles wouldn't even be a warmup for a camel. The actual
oval is about six miles around, beginning and ending at the grandstand. You'd correctly surmise that most of the
action is totally out of sight of stationary spectators. In fact, in the past, as soon as the starting gun sounded
dozens of Emiraties would go screaming alongside the track in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, paying more attention to
the camels than their driving – that is, even worse than their normal driving – putting not only spectators, but even
the jockeys at risk. As far as we could tell from the TV coverage, the only vehicles allowed along the track now
belong to the owners, whose trainers instruct their jockeys in strategy by radio, and to the TV crew, who mainly
focused on the leader, although for a while there was another camel close enough to the leader to also appear in
The jockeys are really small, in fact in the past many were children. Although a law now bans children as
jockeys, and there is a minimum weight requirement, the winner looked awfully young to me.
for recent developments that have led to the complete replacement of human jockeys with robots!]
The jockeys sit way in the back, behind the single hump, and the camel lopes along with its neck extended way out front, parallel to the
ground. Their natural gait is pacing, where both legs on each side move in unison. It's claimed that one reason
they're nicknamed "ships of the desert" is because of the swaying from side to side such a gait produces, which can
lead to something akin to seasickness. When we rode one during our trip into the desert, the main feature I noticed
was how broad its back was. I guess a Bedouin would beat a cowboy for bowleggedness.
As you can imagine, the reins are really long, and "neck and neck" or "wins by a neck" would have genuine
significance here. However, in the race we saw the leader was rarely challenged, and the winning jockey sat perched
like a lump, his whip pointing skyward like an antenna, for about ten minutes as the camel seemed to continue along
on cruise control. It reminded me of one of those cheaply-made TV cartoons, where the legs move, the neck bobs a
little, and the rest of the body and the jockey remain stationary. Although, this being the desert, there weren't
any trees, hills, or clouds spooling by in the background to give the illusion of motion. And, at over twenty miles
an hour, there actually is a lot of motion. As the race neared the end, the jockey suddenly came to life, whipping
his mount across the finish line; perhaps he was playing to the grandstand, because whoever was in second place took
quite a while to cross the finish line.
It's obvious that our Lonely Planet Guide is outdated, since during our visit we learned of an important third
use for camels: Abu Dhabi held a camel beauty contest! Our friends who live here pointed out that they were being
copycats, that one had previously been held in Dubai, and the winner proudly appeared on the front page of The Gulf
News. Unfortunately, although we did see several pictures of some of these contestants, the coverage this time
petered out before the coronation.
"The event," according to Al Ramis Saleh Al Minhali, a member of the National Consultative Council and the
contest's coordinator, "is part of the president's [that is, President His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan A
Nahyan's] keenness to encourage breeding of camels and preserve national heritage and culture." He also said
that "the Committee [a neutral judging body comprised of four members who did not participate nor did they have
any relatives in the contest] will select the most beautiful camels according to certain specifications. These
include the camel's head, body, hump, legs, cheeks and eyes, health, and adornment by the owner." Earlier reports
had noted that various owners had already bred various beauties they owned in an effort to produce even lovelier
camels. It wasn't reported which, if any, of those genetically-improved animals competed this year.
In a first for such contests, male camels were allowed to compete as well as females, although separate prizes
were awarded for each. And, amazingly for this male-dominated society, the prize money allocated for females was
twice that as for males!