Bait Al Thiqa – the Dubai company making robot jockeys

Started by a former camel trainer, the company now supplies robots to clients across the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia

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In 2006, two years after the UAE became the first country in the world to ban boys under 16 from riding racing camels, camel trainer Mohammed Ismail had a business idea that would change his and his family's fortune for ever.

Ismail, who was making a side income by building and selling remote-controlled car and plane toys from his tiny Dubai home, decided to take advantage of the growing demand for robot jockeys, motorised devices that ensure human safety. Calling his company Bait Al Thiqa, or the House of Trust, it would take him a few years of hard work to find his footing.

Staff at Bait al Thiqa build robots for camel racing at their workshop in Lahab, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

"It was not easy at first because he didn't really succeed with those toy cars and aeroplanes," says Rashid, 23, Ismail's son, who now runs the business with his father. "I remember growing up we were very poor, and would have problems with water and food every month on dad's Dh600 salary from camel training."

Using his deep knowledge of camels and his contacts in the camel-racing business, Ismail's perseverance eventually paid off, as demand for the robots grew not just in the UAE, but across the Arabian Gulf.

Bait Al Thiqa supplies robot jockeys to customers throughout the Arabian Gulf. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Today, Bait Al Thiqa is one of the largest robot jockey suppliers in the UAE and, according to Rashid, is "the oldest and best shop in the entire Middle East".

"We build and repair robots and supply to clients across the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia," Rashid tells The National. "We sell to all kinds of clients, from people doing it for fun to those taking parts in the competition.

"We design all the robots ourselves and give the best quality. Every single part is made by us."

Robot jockeys typically have motorised arms for a whip, and reins, the former attached to an adapted power drill that rotates it at a speed controlled by the operator who follows in one of the vehicles accompanying the speeding camels. Some models can also monitor the camel's speed and even its heart rate. They also incorporate a built-in saddle and can be customised with the owner's racing colours.

Robot jockeys on display at Bait Al Thiqa's workshop in Lahab, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Camel racing is hugely popular across the Gulf. At the first annual Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Camel Race Festival in 2018, prizes, including cash, swords, rifles and luxury vehicles, totalled a whopping Dh95 million ($25.86 million).

When Bait Al Thiqa first opened, Ismail, who is now 50, had two workers with him, building and assembling all their robots. Today, the company has 65 full-time staff.

During peak season, which starts in February, the company sells between 65 and 100 units a month and about 5 to 10 a month when there are no races.

"The rest of the time is spent servicing and repairing used robots or customising existing ones," Rashid says.

Robots at Bait Al Thiqa cost between Dh1,000 and Dh2,000, depending on specifications. Each unit takes about an hour to assemble, with most of the parts being manufactured by the company's partners in China.

Rashid Ismail says Bait al Thiqa is 'the oldest and best shop in the entire Middle East' for robot jockeys. Chris Whiteoak / The National

"We have experienced engineers in the shop who can make any kind of changes internally if necessary. We also now have many clients coming from Canada and the US. There are many companies that make better-looking and sleeker models than us, but none that can work as well and as dependable as ours," Rashid says.

Bait Al Thiqa makes sales worth about Dh200,000 to Dh300,000 every month, going up to Dh1 million to Dh3 million during peak season, Rashid says.

"We never expected life to change like this," he says. "When I was 13, we lived in a tiny house made mostly of plastic, now we have three homes and I drive my own car. God has been good."

Updated: February 04, 2022, 6:02 PM