KUWAIT CITY // Emirati camels dominated the season's largest and last racing festival in Kuwait yesterday, amid signs that European interest in the Bedouin sport is growing. Camels from the UAE won three out of four races on the final day of Kuwait's tenth camel racing festival, with Freeda, a camel belonging to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, winning the main event: a 10-km race for females over five years old.
The winning camels were paraded in front of the presidents of several of the Middle East's camel racing associations and hundreds more Kuwaitis after their handlers coated the animals with a thick facemask of saffron. The orange stain will last on their skin for several months, so that everyone who sees the animals will know they are champions. "The Emiratis are the best, they always are," said Salah al Baidel, a 30-year-old Sudanese handler.
"There have been around 15 races this week, and the Emiratis have won about 10 of them," Mr al Baidel said as he reclined on the neck of his camel in a display of mutual trust. Racing camels do not have the velvet, shiny coats of thoroughbred racehorses; tufts of hair grow in patches over their muscular frames. Their long, gangly limbs, angled bodies and thin waistlines give them a model-like appearance, and the fastest ones can be worth millions of dollars.
As they trotted across the finish line, the exertion of the race had caused their mouths to spew foam. Child jockeys that were controversially used to race the beasts have been replaced with light machines that whip the animals' back. Saad Osman Mohamed, the president of the Sudan racing union, had brought just two of his 20 racing camels across the Red Sea to take part in the event. Despite the UAE's dominance, he maintains that his country breeds the region's fastest camels.
"Sudan is the best country in Africa and Asia for quality and quantity - the top speed of Sudanese camels is so high that everyone is afraid of them, they do not want to race them," Mr Mohamed said. "But Sudan doesn't have the money and the infrastructure to compete with the UAE. They have developed the sport very well there, that's why they always succeed." Only two camels among 25 that raced on the day were Kuwaiti. They were both owned by Jarallah al Marri, 24, a lance corporal in the army who comes from one of the country's few families that breed race camels. He said six of the family's camels won in the event last year, but this year they only had two winners so far.
"There aren't many good racing camels in Kuwait; lots of people breed, but not for racing," Mr al Marri said. "My father's the only significant breeder in the country." Camels are plentiful in Kuwait, but most citizens prefer to eat them rather than race them, and the Bedouin see no contradiction in using the animals for transport or nourishment. Even at the track, the feast provided for the assembled guests included two large camels cooked tender and served on a bed of rice, their humps protruding from the trays.
Camel racing has always been of secondary importance to horse racing, even in its native Gulf, but Erich Troxler, the vice president of Switzerland's newly formed camel racing club, plans to develop the sport in Europe. Germany, France and Austria also have racing clubs, but their representatives could not attend because they were grounded by Iceland's volcanic ash. Mr Troxler said the club had arranged a major meet in Europe involving camels from all over the Middle East, but had to cancel it following controversies related to Switzerland's referendum that placed a ban on mosque minarets.
Instead, the club organised a local event with 20 camels purchased by individual members of the group and a communal fund. Mr Troxler, who became interested in the camels after working in the region and travelling with them in the Sahara Desert, bought two himself and plans to organise events for the Swiss club in other European countries. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org