In 1997, Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father, hosted a camel race at Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba track. The race was held for a German delegate and friend, Wilhelm Breitling, who himself had a camel farm in Germany.
What was atypical about this particular race was that the participating camel jockeys were all German women. In the famously insular male-dominated sport, this was highly unusual. However, the women had been learning to ride the camels for several weeks and were invited to the UAE by Sheikh Zayed, who was one of the most ardent patrons of camel racing in the region and wanted to promote the sport internationally.
The event was a historical one and made headlines in Germany. It also marked one of the few, if not only, instances where women participated in a camel race as jockeys. The positive outcomes of that 1997 event are still being felt today. Now, more than two decades later, the race is being cited as the inspiration behind the creation of a camel racing school that focuses on training women.
Located near Al Marmoom Heritage Village in Dubai, the Arabian Desert Camel Riding Centre (ADCRC) opened its doors in January and is billed as the UAE's first licensed centre for camel riding, training and race preparation. The centre, owned by Obaid bin Subaih Al Falasi, is managed by Shamsa Al Hajj and Linda Krockenberger, both of whom have years of camel riding experience and lead the training sessions.
"Students with no experience can join us and will eventually graduate with the required skills to also participate in camel races if they wish," Al Hajj tells The National.
While the centre does accept male students and has designated days for mixed classes, its primary focus is on training a women's team to participate in heritage races across the country. These races, held with the intention of keeping the tradition alive, generally take place between October and March and are separate from the competitive races jockeyed by robots.
“The team includes more than 12 camel jockeys from several European and Arab countries,” Al Hajj says. “They all participate with courage and passion.”
While some of the women have horse riding experience, most are completely new to the sport. Al Hajj says they usually begin the training by learning how to walk and trot with the camels, first with the support of guiding camels before taking the reins freely.
“We train in the mornings and evenings and cover between eight and 12 kilometres in each session,” Al Hajj says. “The most important aspect of riding camels is to find balance within the moment with minimal support. Our education programme includes the necessary theoretical classes in how to prepare the riding equipment as well as how to care for the animals.”
Part of the motivation to open the centre, Krockenberger says, is that she couldn't find a place to develop her camel riding skills after learning how to ride two years ago during the annual camel trek held by the Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre.
“Once the journey from Liwa to Dubai was completed, I wanted to go find a place to continue working with these fascinating animals, especially because it was a good balance to my corporate life,” she says. “That’s how I met Shamsa [Al Hajj] and we became good friends.”
Krockenberger began honing her riding skills with Al Hajj, taking a series of long camel rides with her as often as she could. "We did a return trip to Qudra Lakes, which is 25km away, just for fun. It took a whole day but it was a chance to enjoy the camels and the desert."
Eventually, the duo decided to launch the school with the aim of making it more accessible for members of the larger UAE community to interact with camels and to also carve a space for women jockeys at the annual heritage races.
"The heritage races are where Emirati boys would be riding, across different age categories and Shamsa [Al Hajj], being a strong Emirati woman and very passionate about her heritage, said 'OK, but where's our place?'," Krockenberger says. Come October, the women's camel racing team at the ADCRC will be ready to take part in the heritage races.
Though camel racing is deeply ingrained in the UAE's culture – it was included in Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December as a UAE and Omani element – it isn't easy for most residents to participate in.
“Our mission is to make the sport available for everyone who is interested,” she says. “There is a focus on females because they didn’t have a space like this so far.”
Krockenberger said that it was important for the centre to receive an official licence from the Dubai Sports Council. She says she and Al Hajj didn't want to just make the hobby accessible to other people, but to build something that could potentially have a lasting legacy.
“We wanted to bring back the athletic aspect of camel racing,” she says. “To have the centre run by and for the community, where we can all take input from the people and our team and evolve.”