Identity 2016: Camel racing, a market worth millions

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Faisal Ali Sulaiman Al Khaldi, from a family of racing camel breeders in Oman, explains how the industry is booming and expanding to some unlikely places.

In the waiting room for a flight to Doha at Dubai International Airport, two men are sitting dressed in Gulf style - from their turbans it seems that they are from neighbouring Oman, though these details would not be easy to notice for someone not familiar with the region's culture.

Taking the initiative and starting a conversation with them, Faisal and Ahmed then tell me of the reasons for their visit to Dubai - including attending camel races.

Camel races? I exclaim, eager to know the story. "I'm fond of camel breeding and racing, it is a family tradition," replies Faisal.

"My paternal grandfather and his family adored rearing camels, whereas my maternal grandfather and his family enjoyed rearing horses. I have been obsessed with camels since my childhood," he says.

Honey and eggs

While Faisal works in the communications industry, outside of work he rears camels with the help of his family because, he says "it absorbs the negative energy accumulated during the week".

These days, camels are no longer raised for their milk and meat as they used to be - instead they've become a way to make money and become a millionaire.

Faisal explains that camels are fed on a rich diet including honey, fresh milk, eggs, dates and vitamins. You feed camels honey, isn't it expensive? I ask. "We spend £1,000 a month to prepare a camel for a race," he answers.

Image source, Faisal Khaldi
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These days most races are run using robotic jockeys
Image source, Faisal Khaldi
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Thousands turn out for the biggest races, such as Dubai's annual Camel Racing Festival
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"My paternal grandfather and his family adored rearing camels," says Faisal

Faisal also explains the age at which a camel starts racing varies between two years and seven - once the trainer feels that the camel is ready.

Racing camels, it must be said, does not come cheap.

The rulers of Gulf states generally determine the camels' prices. "They buy camels from their owners and raise them, but never sell them," says Feisal. "The rulers participate on an equal footing with their citizens in the competitions.

"They do so, with the aid of Omanis who are well known for this [camel racing]," he explains.

But how much does a camel cost? Faisal says that a camel's price starts from about $55,000 (£40,000) but thoroughbreds can go for a lot more. Back in 2010 an Emirati camel-racing fan spent £6.5m on three camels.

The prices of winning camels go even higher - from between $5-10m, but for some can fetch up to $30m. Faisal looked nonchalant when he was speaking about the prices, while I vainly try not to look shocked.

Image source, Faisal Khaldi
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Camels race on tracks of between 1.5km and 8km, depending on their age
Image source, Faisal Khaldi
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Oman is seen as one of the centres of expertise when it comes to camel breeding and racing

But attaining to this level is not easy, camels have to pass preliminary rounds in Gulf countries, with the winners awarded a place in the big races.

The more Faisal talks about the importance of camel racing, the more I understand about the role of Gulf countries as a big camel market - they sell camels destined for animal husbandry and those destined for racing.

Weekly fairs and local camel races are held with the aim of choosing the best ones to participate in the major competitions - such as the Gulf Racing Cup, Dubai's annual Camel Racing Festival, and the Shahanya Camel Races in Qatar.

The track length varies between 1.5km and 8km according to age - there are races for two, four, six and eight-year-old camels.

Image source, Faisal Khaldi
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Camels are no longer raised for their milk and meat as they used to be

The camel that wins a final, wins the symbolic award of a sword - as well as a prize jackpot of $3m "Just like show jumping at Wembley," says Faisal.

Given all the intense interest and money that is invested in racing camels, do people ever bet on the races, I ask Feisal? They never do, he answers, because it is forbidden in Islam.

In recent year, the Gulf States have stopped using children as jockeys - and instead switched to robot ones after criticism from human rights organizations, who reported child were being killed on the camel racing-circuits.

But adults can still race camels, says Faisal, who also believes that these races can become popular sporting events in different parts of the world - even Europe. But isn't Europe too cold, I ask?

"It's even better for camels," Faisal replies. "Because a hot and dry environment drains the camels' energy".

Camel races in Europe? Who knows it just might catch on.

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