August 9, 2013 7:22 pm

First Person: Suhail al-Rashidi

‘I race camels using robot jockeys’
Suhail Al Rashidi©Lee Hoagland

Suhail al-Rashidi with steed and robot rider: “Children were used once, but it’s dangerous”

I live just outside Abu Dhabi, where my family runs the Rooh al-Sahra camel stables. Camel racing dates back more than 1,000 years. Camels are treated like royalty in the United Arab Emirates – there are even beauty contests where they are judged on features such as whiskers, lips and eyelashes.

I’m 23 and about to finish a degree in accountancy, then I’ll return to the family business and become a trainer, like my father and brothers. We’ve won many races over the years but the biggest challenge in our sport has been the introduction of robot camel jockeys.

For centuries, children were used as jockeys because they are small and light, but it’s a dangerous sport. In 2005, child riders were banned and camel racers now mainly use robot jockeys, which are operated by remote control from a following vehicle. The first robot jockey I saw was very cumbersome: those early ones weighed about 30kg and cost a lot of money. Now, though, technology has reduced the weight to 10kg and the cost to just over £100.

More

IN FT Magazine

The latest robots are shaped like the torso and head of a human being, which helps the camels get used to them, with one mechanical arm to hold a remote-controlled whip. I usually dress my robots in our family colours of red and gold, just like a human racing jockey. This also makes it easier to identify my camel during a race, which can go on for up to seven miles.

Once I have my robot sitting on the camel’s hump, I strap it firmly into place. A camel can run at 40mph and there is a lot of jostling and contact. Some of the robot jockeys have face masks and sunglasses, which make them look more human to the camels. Some trainers even spray the robot jockeys with traditional Arab perfume, to increase the sense of realism for the camel.

When my family buys a camel, we look for the Asayal breed. These tan-coloured camels are the best animals to race because they’re thoroughbred and more athletic. A top racing camel is worth a lot of money – one recently sold for £3m and it will be put out to stud in later life.

My favourite camel is called Helwa, which means “beautiful” in Arabic. Helwa is directly descended from a camel that was given to my father by his father. My family is Bedouin and, when we sit around the table to eat, there are always lots of fantastic stories that show why camels are so important in our Bedouin history. Our ancestors lived a nomadic existence, roaming the desert looking for the best places to graze camels and goats.

Camel racing is a big industry here but, as Muslims, we should not bet. Instead, there is a lot of prestige and status in owning a top camel. The prize money can be large and the winner sometimes receives a very expensive car as part of his winnings, such as a new Range Rover or Mercedes G-Wagon. These 4x4s are popular because we also use them during the race.

Once the camels are released from their starting pen, they run along a sand track that is fenced off. I join the trainers, who are driven along a tarmac road next to the course, often standing up through the sunroof. I operate the whip and shout instructions to the camel via a walkie-talkie, with speakers fitted to the robot.

There are no reins on the camel but it responds to the instructions it hears from me. There can be as much pushing and jockeying for position with the vehicles as there is with the camels. Television crews run their vehicles from the other side of the track, transmitting races live across the UAE to huge audiences.

After a race, there’s always a lot of celebration and talking about who has the best animal. The sport is hugely popular in the UAE and robot jockeys have made it much safer, but I’m hoping they will never develop a robot camel.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts