Once upon a time in the Western Region: Meet UAE’s racing camel tycoon

Mohammed Al Mansoori has a stable of camels that are the envy of many an owner with his Al Gharbia herd. As the sport has strong connections to the Rulers, it has grown at the same time as the nation’s wealth, making the owner a rich man.

Racing camel owner Mohammed Zayed Al Mansoori at his farm at Al Dhafra in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi with just some of the trophies won by his camels in racing competitions round GCC countries. Ravindranath K / The National
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Mohammed Zayed Al Mansoori is putting Al Gharbia on the map, one camel at a time. For the past decade, the Madinat Zayed camel owner has named his entire herd after his native region, Al Gharbia. The Western Region, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman at the fringe of the Empty Quarter, is best known for oil rigs and salt flats.

Mr Al Mansoori is one of the largest racing camel owners in the UAE and owns about 300 camels at any given time.

The camel tycoon is set to dominate the season finals under way at Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathbah track this week, which are expected to attract 8,000 camels. He has more than 20 camels competing in the 10-day competition and his heart is set on the final race day, on Wednesday, known as the Day of the Sword.

At this point, he says, victory rests on fate and destiny. However, Mr Al Mansoori knows a man must build his own success.

“The bottom line is, it comes down to a person’s perseverance and determination,” he said. “You must have it as a passion. If you really like it, if it is your ambition and you want to become a famous trainer you have to work at it. With the grace of God, the help of God, you will always get there.”

While an oil field is not the most poetic of names, Mohammed’s strategy is a stroke of marketing genius.

By giving his 300 camels a name unique to his farm, Mr Al Mansoori created his own brand. If a camel named Al Gharbia crosses the finish line, people know it belongs to Mohammed of the West. He is a marketing mastermind of the race track.

“Of course I’m famous because all of my camels are called Gharbia,” said Mr Al Mansoori, 39, during an interview at the start of this season. “I am from Al Gharbia and I live in Al Gharbia and I am proud of my region. That’s why I called all of my camels Al Gharbi and Al Gharbia. Just to honour the region.”

For variety, a few of Mr Al Mansoori’s camels were named Habshan after a major oil and gas field.

“Habshan is an area in the Western Region,” said Mr Al Mansoori. “Its one of the main oil fields in the UAE and we’re honoured that the oil field is in Al Gharbia.”

This year, Mr Al Mansoori was asked to stop registering his camels under the name Al Gharbia, putting an end to one of the most inventive marketing tactics used in a multimillion-dirham industry.

But that no longer matters. He has made his name.

There are no formal rules about camel names. Large-scale racing sport is an invention of the modern state, made possible through modern broadcasting technology and oil wealth. Rules are changed and invented as the sport develops into an increasingly lucrative and commercialised industry. Profit is earned through the sales of victorious camels and prizes donated by corporations or sheikhs.

Camels may have poetic names, often derived from bedu poetry, or name their camels after their work or hobbies. Examples include Etisalat after the phone service provider, Wasli after the Al Ain football club, and Range Rover after the 4x4 popular among desert drivers.

Modern technology enables race camels to be microchipped with an identification number so that those identical names can be distinguished.

The most common way to name a camel is after its ancestors. Bloodline can be traced for generations and helps to determine a camel’s value. Pedigree names are taken from inspirational camel of exceptional power and stamina. Such camels are rare and to have a descendant carry a name forward is a great honour for its owner.

Mr Al Mansoori has sidestepped this by naming all of his camels Al Gharbia. In essence, he gets the benefit and fame of a great brand without an exceptional camel.

Nonetheless, his camels have proven themselves on the track. Dozens of trophies fill his majlis. There are trophies topped with spinning camel heads, the Burj Khalifa and pairs of camels in full stride. They are kept alongside a collection of swords, daggers and rifles won as prizes, photographs of the sheikhs in gilded frames and posters of camels Photoshopped on to green fields.

His trainer, Mahmoud Mohammed Al Wahhibi, has a reputation that attracts owners from across the Arabian Gulf who stable their camels with him and also race them under the name Al Gharbia.

This trainer is the secret to his successful business, with sales valued at Dh80 million last year. Mr Al Mansoori estimates that the 300 camels on his farm, all uninsured, are worth Dh600m and have monthly expenses of Dh2m to Dh2.5m.

“It’s not about the money,” said Mr Al Mansoori. “If you want to get to the top you don’t stop to think about money or profit.”

Early in the season, he sold a female camel to Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid for Dh7m. “This season I purchased the camels for Dh48m. That is me, Mohammed Zayed. This is me preparing for the next season.”

Distinction is important in an Arabian Gulf increasingly crowded with race camels and owners looking to get rich.

Racing has “become an essential or a main source of income for people”, said Mr Al Mansoori. “After Sheikh Zayed it was also strongly supported by the President, Sheikh Khalifa, and also by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince.

“Many people like to keep or bring their camels to Mohammed Zayed Al Mansoori’s farm because when you have a farm that has a good trainer, people have confidence. It’s trustworthy.

“This is not just my farm, this is the farm of the citizens of the UAE.

“In the end it is all down to God’s will and hard work and honest work. When the rulers and the sheikhs are supporting something like this of course we’re bound to succeed.

“So as for the profit, of course you can’t put a mark on it, you can’t determine it, it changes with the seasons and luck, really. We haven’t lost till now, we’ve been winning every year.

“We’ve never experienced losses, we’ve always been making profit because we have many racing camels and the trade is flourishing as well. The rewards, the prizes are hefty and they cover some of the expenses.”

Giving a tour of his farm, Mr Al Mansoori shows little interest in the camels. For him, the sport is business and strategy. He is not a coach, he is a manager.

“Every person taking part in a race is a competitor of mine,” he said. “I never underestimate anyone. Everyone is taking part in those races for the purpose of winning and at any moment a person could be lucky and win the race.

“A trainer must be clever, intelligent, active, hard working and active. Besides, a lazy person can’t possibly be intelligent.”

Equally as important as hard work and intelligence, is an understanding of your business partner, whether it is a trainer or a camel.

“Of course, yes, every camel must have a name and I know which is which from their movement and I don’t know need them to speak to me to know what they want and they understand what I want from them.

“They know that you’re talking to them.”