Here in the desert of Kuwait, they race camels. Roughly a 45-minute drive south of Kuwait City, the Kuwait Camel Racing Club holds weekly camel races from about September through February on the Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah race track.
If you’re like me, you may wonder: Can camels run? I think of them as loping along at a leisurely pace, all gangly legs and awkwardness. But no, my friends, camels can indeed run, at a sprinting pace of upwards of 60 to 65 kilometers per hour. They are also surprisingly graceful when they do so. Those long legs propel them forward smoothly; their heads, thrust ahead at the end of a long stretch of neck, bob only slightly.
We had the opportunity to join a group attending the races last weekend. We piled into a van here in the city and let a driver deal with the headache of Kuwait highway traffic. The view out the window soon turned into desolate desert: flat, sandy ground stretching out to the horizon below a nearly cloudless blue sky. Camps with white tents, behind flimsy temporary fences, peppered the landscape. Kuwaitis like to take advantage of the cooler weather this time of year by leaving the city to camp in the desert. I’m still learning, but as I understand it, some of the tent areas we saw further out from the city may have been more permanent, belonging to Beduin. We saw sheep and goat herders, and once we drove nearer the race track, groups of camels, draped in blankets, usually led by one or two ridden by men. The camels in Kuwait are dromedary camels, which is a fancy way of saying they are one-humped. They were first domesticated about 4,000 years ago.
We passed a sign for the Kuwait Camel Racing Club at one of the gates on the way to the race track grand stand. I imagine everyone was at the races.
There are two basic ways to watch the races. You can watch from the stands, where you really only see the very end, or, you can take your life in your hands and join the gang of SUVs which race alongside the camels. We opted for the former.
The camels get their own dirt track. Alongside the track, separated by rails, a second dirt track is for the owners to drive along, guiding the camels with remote-controlled robot jockeys positioned on the camels’ backs (more on that later). Two additional paved tracks are for track employees, including the man who calls out the race for broadcasting, and the ‘herd’ of spectators driving along. We could only see a small section of the track, which I think is three kilometers in length. (It may be longer.)
When we arrived, the races hadn’t yet started for the day. A large grandstand was already occupied by a few scattered groups. We stood on the paved road near the track and waited.
Soon, a military-esque band struck up a lively tune.
When the music finished it was time for the real show. For us, the races were just a diversion, but prizes for the winners can be hefty. According to the BBC, prizes can range up to $1 million, at least for races taking place in Saudi Arabia. Here, brand new cars, visible at the track and parked in rows, were on offer as prizes. Betting is illegal in Islam, so unlike horse racing in the US, gambling isn’t a part of the action. The camels themselves can be worth crazy amounts of money. Several online sources I found claim that the most expensive camel ever sold was for $53 million (Yes. 53. Million. Dollars). Prices more typically start at $50,000. It’s clearly a rich man’s sport.
We knew the first race was nearing us by the sound of cars in the distance. The voice on the loudspeaker, calling out the race in Arabic, also sounded more urgent. The crowd on the ground surged forward toward the rails separating us from the track and the camels came into view.
If you look closely above, you can see the contraption on the camel’s back. The “jockey” is how the owner communicates with the camel during the race. As the SUVs race alongside, the owner speaks through a walkie talkie to his camel, urging the camel to go faster. Extra incentive is provided also by a remote-controlled riding crop, which swings out from the back of the jockey to give the camel a smack. Driving alongside the race must be an adrenaline rush for the owners, as dozens of cars compete for clear views, and sometimes the owners are the ones driving, even as they are attempting to watch their camel and use the walkie talkie. The separate track for non-owners looked similarly chaotic. (No regrets here for choosing to stay stationary while watching.)
Camel racing in the Middle East dates back at least to the 7th century. It’s a sport that has had to evolve in recent years, since traditionally children were used as jockeys. At least in some Arab countries, child jockeys were trafficked from southeast Asia and forced to race under very dangerous, sometimes fatal, conditions. It’s a dark past which has been banned for several decades, with robot jockeys now the norm throughout the region.
After the first couple of races, a few in our party learned we could enter the grand stands to watch. After trying and being turned away from a couple of entrances, we were admitted to the far end of the enclosed grand stand, in a section separate from the central seating. Once inside, we had a better view of the complex. I appreciated getting a higher view.
Past the finish line, in an area just to the right of the grand stand, a few camels who I believe had already finished their races, were standing amongst men who I assume may have been the camel owners and or caretakers. (My former journalist self is cringing at my lack of concrete details since I wan’t attending as a reporter; bear with me in my current role as amateur blogger who happened to attend this event.) We didn’t get the chance to go down and see them but there’s no barriers – plenty of people walked up and took close-up photographs. My pictures were taken through the glass in the grand stand.
We left before the sun had set, boarding the van for the ride back through the desert to the city. Since coming home, I’ve gone down a bit of a rabbit hole trying to learn a bit more about the races. I took a few videos while we were there, but not of very good quality. If you’re curious to learn more, I recommend this Vice Asia video (15 min), or for a quicker peek, this BBC Earth video (4 min). Neither were filmed in Kuwait, but the races featured look very similar to what we witnessed.
The entire visit was free of charge – there’s no admission fee, at least to watch the way that we did. They even brought around some trays of dates for people in the stands to eat and had tea on offer. When we went, I assumed we would go just once and be able to say we had experienced it while we had the opportunity to do so. After all, how often do you get to say your weekend plans included camel racing? But now, I think maybe I’d like to return again next year, at least to take a closer look.
Hi Susie – Just started a subscription to your blog. Enjoying your adventures there. Hope all is well. Tom and I were with Chase, Farah, and Eva last week while Patrick and Alyssa were in Boston. They are crazy busy with the 6 kids and, as always, we are thankful to be close enough to see them regularly. Our best to you, Wil, and Liam. Diane
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Thank you for subscribing, Diane! It’s wonderful that you and Tom are able to be so close to the grandkids – that’s really special in this day and age.
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