Al Lisaili, in the desert of Dubai, is a camel racing mecca. The village surrounding the Al Marmoum Camel Race Track is home to camel farms owned by impassioned businessmen. One of them, Rashid Al Mansouri, invited us to visit his champions’ stables.

Dubai Emirate, an April afternoon. We are no longer in the ultra-air-conditioned malls of Dubai City, but in the dry heat of the desert some 65 kilometres away. This is Al Lisaili, Dubai’s camel breeding and racing ‘capital’. At first glance, nothing to write home about. Basic low buildings, a newish mosque, all built along a four-lane motorway that leads to Al Ain, a city on the border of Abu Dhabi and Oman. But there are vast, empty, barren enclosures surrounded by high fences that intrigue us - they look something like livestock markets on an off day. Empty? Not quite. One of them holds dromedaries belonging to Rashid Al Mansouri.

« Come on, you are welcome ! »

he says, catching us eying his herd through the fence. We shake hands with this dashing fellow dressed in a grey kandura and crowned with the traditional white ghutrah and black band. In a smaller, canvas-covered pen, five swift-looking young camels sniff the wind with a nervous air. They wear handsome damask blankets of a blue pattern.

“Those are three and four years old. Racing season is over, since the heat is coming, but we take care of them and continue their training,”

their owner explains.

Peak speed: 55 kilometres per hour

Training is reserved for youngsters; ‘old’ dromedaries are excused. The young ones learn the ropes by trotting behind their elders on the Camel Race Track. Rashid Al Mansouri drives us there in his gleaming SUV.

‘My grandfather and father raised racing camels. I’ve followed suit; it’s a real hobby,’

explains this enthusiast, who also presents himself as a businessman.

Each camel races within a certain category. The older they are, the further they run – up to eight kilometres on a circular track of earth and sand. With a peak speed of 55 kilometres per hour, the fastest camels cover the distance in just a few minutes. Good competitors are spotted early on and are quickly earmarked for racing; the others are sold in the markets.

No betting here

Organised from October to March in the Emirates as well as in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman, the races arouse a great deal of passion. The Al Marmoum Camel Race Track, a complex supported by the Emir, and the Al Wathba Race Track in Abu Dhabi hold the most prestigious and best-endowed competitions. But make no mistake! In Dubai and the Arab world in general, betting is forbidden by Islamic law.

‘When we win races,’ our breeder explains, ‘sponsors offer purses like luxury cars such as Mercedes and Land Rovers.’

Not to mention the astronomical sums a champion can fetch if sold.

‘Up to four or five million dirhams (around a million euros),’

according to Al Mansouri. Certainly enough to turn a hobby into a business! To round out his stables, Al Mansouri owns three studs, ensuring healthy diversity for breeding.

Robot jockeys

Near the race track and another straight track three kilometres long with a starting line reminiscent of Newmarket or Cheltenham, Rashid Al Mansouri leads us to another stable where wary but adorable baby camels from one to three months old are reared. Among them are future stars that our host pets and fusses over as if they were his own babies. He owns fifty camels. ‘That’s quite enough for one man,’ says he.

A few years ago, the sport made headlines when westerners decried the presence of young child jockeys in the races.

‘You journalists did some reporting that aroused public opinion. It’s true that there were accidents. In the beginning, the jockeys were children from the Emirates – in fact my own son rode in some races. But then other children arrived from Pakistan and Bangladesh. If they were gifted, they stayed; otherwise they had to go back,’

says Al Mansouri without mincing words.

Since then, Dubai has looked for and found solutions: the Emirate and its neighbours have designed super light robots to replace the kids. Attached to the camels’ backs, they are remote-controlled from the edge of the track by joystick specialists who follow the orders of owners in the galleries. The jockey-bots are capable of stimulating the animals like human jockeys do, telling them to go faster, to push right or left, etc.

Like everywhere else in Dubai, high-tech has been welded to tradition here. For the pleasure and clear conscience of fans and of breeders like Rashid Al Mansouri, who have been camel racing ‘addicts’ through the sands of time.

Practical information

Tourism portal of the City of Dubai

The official Dubai Emirate website