The Gulf’s fastest camels braced against sandy winds on Wednesday in the grand finals of the camel race season.
It was the last race for tribesmen in the seasonal calendar. Thursday will be the finals in the sheikh category, and the last races of the season. These races mark the end of the Al Marmoom Heritage Festival Final, which began April first.
Camel race season runs from September through April, with a break in the summer months when temperatures can reach 50°C.
The finals at Dubai’s Marmoom track are believed to be the largest of the season, with more than 16,000 camels competing for prizing totalling Dh153 million. There 23 races for camels of all ages.
Wednesday’s racers were ages six and above, the age that camels are mature. They competing for three covered Emirates swords. On Thursday, two swords with sheaths plated in 22-karat gold will be presented to the top camels owned by sheikhs.
As is the case with camel racers, the grandstands remained fairly empty until the end of the day with Saudi, Omani and Emirati owners preferring to race their luxury vehicles beside the racetrack to communicate with their camels via walkie-talkie remote-control robot jockeys.
A special section for VVIP drivers was designated beside the racetrack so that these camel kingpins could start the race with a closer view of their valued beasts.
In these finals, camels do not need to have prior qualifications yet no owner would consider entering a sub-par athlete when all of the Gulf are here to watch — if not in person, then at least on TV.
In the grandstands, camel breeder Saeed Khalfan had driven from Salalah “just to watch”.
“These camels will do eight kilometres in 12 minutes and 30 seconds,” he said. “But come tomorrow. The sheikh’s camels will do eight kilometres in 12 minutes flat.”
Omanis may be the biggest winners at this competition.
Parked among the white Land Cruisers and Range Rovers in his dusty saloon car was Sultan Al Jinaibi, from the southern deserts of Oman’s Al Sharqiya. The people of his region are renowned across the Gulf for breeding swift camels. Mr Al Jinaibi brought 13 camels to Marmoom in hopes of a sale that could be worth several months income.
“Look, my area is not a place for businessmen,” said Mr Al Jinaibi, who is 34. “We’ve got two types, the sea people and the desert people. From when we are young, we live with the camels.”
For the young men of Al Sharqiya, becoming a breeder in the UAE can translate into wealth and prominence. Even in the region’s wadis, people know the names of famous trainers who have made their wealth at races like these.
Trainers are given a share of the prize as a salary bonus. Prizes at Marmoom included cash, swords and saddlebags and 304 luxury 4x4s including Range Rovers, Nissans and Fords. The better the race, the better the vehicles on offer.
This draws men from a young age. Also on the sidelines was Saeed, 22, who had come to support the eight-year-old camel Zafrana (Saffron) and seven-year-old Nashara (Hot weather). Saeed has already worked part time in the UAE for eight years, and divides his time between Al Sharqiya and Al Ain, spending three months at a time in each. “We race our camels in Oman when they’re young and when they’re mature we bring them here,” he said.
Saeed was parked in a 4x4 filled with other young Omanis his age. All plan to earn through these races.
Parked nearby at the starting line were three buses for visitors who felt less confident driving among the dozens of cars that lined the racetrack. The slow pace of a running camel made for easy driving, said bus-driver Mohammed Akhtar. “They don’t speed too much, only 35 or 40 maximum.”
The six rounds on Wednesday afternoon had prizes exceeding Dh10 million. Prize money for each round with male camels was worth Dh1.5million. Prize money for each rounds with female camels, who are faster, was worth Dh2million.
This year’s grand winner went to Saleh Bin Nassra, who one the best overall with 15 points for wins during the championship rounds. He credited his star six-year-old camel, Baynounah, who he bought from an Al Dhafra breeder.
“We spent a lot of time preparing our camels, to chose our camels and buy the best camel from the start this season,” said Mr Bin Nassra, who is from Al Ain.
He also credited Meyasa, a third-generation descendant of the legendary camel Meyas.
Thursday’s races are open to the public at the Marmoom racetrack in Dubai. The afternoon session will run from 2pm until 3.30pm.