Camel racing in Abu Dhabi is an ancient tradition. In the past, it was mainly kept for special occasions, but today it is a regular occurrence at specially constructed racetracks in the desert. As this is a Muslim country, there is no gambling and no alcohol but, even so, the atmosphere is charged with excitement as owners, dealers and trainers cheer on their camels. Although these are primarily events for the locals, tourists are welcome to come along and enjoy the spectacle.
Camels From Across the Gulf
Camels seem to be a bit of an obsession in many of the Gulf States. So much so, that a local teacher told me that, when he asked his students what they most prized, they all said “camels”. They were quite definite that they favoured camels even above their cars (women, of course, came a very poor third!). And when I was in Qatar I met an old Sudanese camel farmer who spent all day, every day tending his camels, with no wish to do anything else.
On race days camels arrive from around the Arabian peninsula to take part in the races, and around 120 camels may compete at a typical meeting. The tracks are between 6 and 10 km round, and each race lasts for 6-7 minutes: camels can achieve speeds of up to 40 km per hour, but there are normally a few stragglers. The next race sets off as soon as the previous one has finished (sometimes without waiting for the last camels to reach the finishing line), so that racing is continuous throughout the meeting.
Watch a short video clip of the Abu Dhabi camel races.
Camels – and Their Unusual Jockeys
The first thing you are likely to notice is the unusual jockeys. Camels cannot carry human adults, so they were traditionally ridden by small boys, often from India or Pakistan. Pressure from human rights groups put an end to this practice and since 2005 small robots, complete with whips and racing silks, have been used instead.
Every race sees a fleet of shiny SUVs racing alongside the camels on a separate track, giving remote control instructions to the robots. “It is two different races,” a tour guide informed us. “The camels and the 4x4s running alongside them.” For him, it was the shiny new vehicles that were the main attraction!
The prizes on offer are dazzling: corporate sponsors offer vast cash prizes and glossy new cars. This makes the winning camels very valuable and at the end of each race meeting there is a frenzy of buying and selling between owners and breeders.
Outside the grounds are shops aimed at owners rather than tourists. Here you can buy camel blankets, whips and robot jockeys.
Camel Race Tracks in Abu Dhabi
The Al Wathba Camel Race Track is about 45 km to the east of Abu Dhabi, and the Al Maqam Track is close to Al Ain. (Elsewhere in the UAE, you can go to the Dubai Camel Racing Club, around 40 km from the city on the Al Ain Road. ) If you travel by taxi make sure to book your return trip in advance, as you are unlikely to find a taxi at the race track.
The camel racing season lasts from October to March. Times vary, but races are often held at the weekends, starting early in the morning. There may also be afternoon meetings. Look on the Internet or in the local press for information. Entrance to the races is free.