The cavalcade will start just after dawn, edging toward remote Seih Al Salam as the morning light filters across the desert.
On Saturday, hundreds of people will throng in this little outpost on the fringes of Dubai for the National Day camel marathon, signifying two landmark events: the 45th anniversary of the UAE and a celebration of decades of a sport which has become synonymous with the country.
The marathon unites two sporting disciplines much-loved in the UAE: camel racing and endurance. And as dozens of camels thunder along a 25-kilometre track for more than an hour, followed by Emiratis in their vehicles, it marks a concerted effort to place heritage sports front and centre when it comes to showcasing the UAE’s cultural and historical legacy.
The event, held by the Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Center (HHC), was opened in 2013 by the Crown Prince of Dubai to encourage a deeper appreciation of heritage among both Emiratis and expats.
The marathon is just one of a number of year-round events held by the centre, alongside numerous sports clubs across the UAE, to provide a platform for the best of Emirati athleticism and sportsmanship.
From falconry, once used by tribes in the desert to forage for food, to shooting, free-diving and saluki racing (the Arabian Desert dogs were once used as hunting hounds by the Bedouin) sport has transformed man’s basic survival instinct into a chance to show off finely tuned skills and be rewarded for expertise.
While the need to survive harsh climates, a lack of food and threats to safety have evaporated, those skills have still been passed down from generation to generation, and are now practised for fun, in a competitive spirit.
“It is cultural more than sporty,” chief executive of the heritage centre Abdullah Hamdan bin Dalmook, chief executive of the heritage centre, says.
One example, the Fazza Heritage Championships, held throughout the year, celebrates skills in falconry with live prey and lures, free-diving and shooting with the saktoun rifle – a firearm traditionally used for hunting.
Until the centre opened three years ago, Bin Dalmook adds, such traditions were only marked with championships.
“Everything is moving very fast, especially with technology, so we have to archive it as culturally educational,” he says. “This is part of our national identity. These things are in our blood.”
Here are some of the most-loved heritage sports still practised in the UAE.
Once an integral means of survival in the desert, falconry has evolved into a highly skilled sport, with rewards for those adept at training the birds, and a high value placed on the most beautiful specimens.
In the past, falconers would hide in holes in the sand to trap wild birds and train them to hunt, then set them free at the end of the hunting season in March.
These days, most birds are bred in captivity, and they can fetch more than Dh500,000 each.
The finest are awarded prizes in a beauty contest in the International Hunting & Equestrian Exhibition in Abu Dhabi every year.
Sheikh Zayed, the Founding President of the UAE, was fond of hunting expeditions with tribesmen and their falcons in tow as a way of bonding with his people.
While hunting for food is no longer a necessity, many Emiratis still keep falcons as pets and love to head into the desert for camping expeditions.
Skills in training falcons with live prey (tilwah) and with lures, as well as skills with younger falcons (faroukh), will be put to the test by the HHC, starting on December 12 in Ruwayyah.
Before that, there will be demonstrations in the Al Falah Pavilion from December 2 to 9 at this year’s month-long Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival.
“We have had a great tradition of sporting activities throughout the development of Abu Dhabi, from camel racing to speed racing and hunting,” director of Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, Mubarak Al Shamsi, says.
Once relied on for transport and for their milk, camels are now feted for their beauty and speed, and can fetch tens of millions of dirhams.
There are an estimated 14,000 racing camels and 15 camel racetracks across the UAE, with regular races held in the morning and afternoon during the racing season, which runs from October to April.
The animals race up to 4km and 10km, controlled by robot jockeys operated by their owners or trainers, who often drive alongside the track in off-road vehicles. Morning races often feature camels owned by royalty, and there are big cash and gift prizes for winners.
This year’s Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival, which runs until January 1, will feature the Zayed Grand Prize camel races, an exhibition of the UAE founder’s camels and horses, and demonstrations of camel milking.
The HHC says that the Fazza Freediving Championship has “been designed to embody the traditional ways of diving in the UAE and the Arabian Gulf, when earning a living required ancient denizens of the region to go diving for months in search of pearls”.
Highly skilled divers endured months of hardship and risked possible death to search for the pearls, which were once the main source of income for the Emirates in the pre-oil era. Spending months at sea, divers would go as far down as 30 metres for as long as three minutes each time, 40 times a day.
The industry, which can be traced back to the 12th century in the region, died out with the development of cultured pearls in the 1920s.
Its modern-day equivalent, free-diving, has since gained popularity worldwide. Fazza Freediving champion Branko Petrovic, originally from Serbia, set a Guinness World Record in the sport in Dubai in 2014 by holding his breath underwater for 11 minutes 54 seconds.
Guests staying at the Desert Islands Resort & Spa on Sir Bani Yas Island can book a three-hour pearl-diving tour aboard a traditional dhow, led by an Emirati expert – with the bonus of keeping any pearls they find on the seabed. Freediving UAE also offers certified courses for beginners.
The Arabian Desert saluki is one of the oldest dog breeds in the world. It was once used by Bedouin tribes to hunt for food, as well as keeping them company as they trekked across the desert.
Saluki racing has been practised in the region for about two decades, and now involves big prize money, particularly at championships held by the HHC and in the Arab Heritage Saluki Race Festival in the Western Region.
Practised by royal families and other Emiratis, it’s similar in style to greyhound racing and takes place year-round, mostly at camel racetracks such as Sweihan, near Abu Dhabi, and Al Marmoum in Dubai.
The salukis can cost up to Dh400,000 each, and winners can take home up to Dh100,000 per race in prize money. The dogs, which can reach speeds of 65kph, race after bait carried by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Winners are treated like VIPs and kept in air-conditioned kennels with exercise facilities and even swimming pools.
Few places in the world can boast a purpose-built city dedicated to hosting equestrian events, but Dubai International Endurance City was opened to do exactly that, hosting the prestigious 160km Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Endurance Cup every year.
Together with the Dubai World Cup at the Meydan racecourse and dozens of riding clubs across the UAE, they reflect a profound love for equestrian sports in the UAE, an association with the Bedouins that dates from 3,000BC.
Sheikh Zayed was instrumental in promoting hardy, purebred Arabians, as entrenched in the region’s culture and heritage as falcons and camels. Races first took place on dirt tracks in 1975.
Wooden dhows were historically used for pearl diving. The Al Gaffal Dhow Race marks a return to a more-traditional way of seafaring.
Every May, more than 100 dhows take part in the race, which was launched in 1991, covering more than 50 nautical miles (93km) from Sir Bu Nair Island to Mina Seyahi in Dubai.
While most modern-day dhows have motors, strict rules mean the 60-foot (18-metre) boats have to rely on just their sails.
With a long history of expertise with weapons in the UAE – once used to hunt and protect territory – it’s little wonder the country boasts several Olympic shooting champions.
Paralympian Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani scooped three silver medals in Rio this summer thanks to his rifle skills, following a gold medal in London in 2012. The UAE’s first Olympic medal was won by shooter Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, who took gold in the double trap in Athens in 2004.
Shakeel Yousaf, the official arena announcer for shooting in the Rio Olympics, says the Emirates has a proud tradition of shooting. “The UAE is really behind shooting. It has invested really well in ranges, takes it seriously and puts on good events.
“The country takes a lot of pride in putting on shooting events in Dubai and Al Ain, and can compete with the best international shooters in the world.”
The Fazza Championship for Saktoun Rifle Shooting, which is an annual event, attracts a significant number of women and aims to “identify promising young talent to groom them to become future champions”.