Dispatch from Dubai: Camel Racing with Robot Jockeys
April 11, 2018
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Yes, you read the title of this piece right: Camel racing with robot jockeys.
Here is the story of an amazing evolution in sports and how we learned about it.
Callista and I spent last weekend in Dubai. It was an amazing experience. Dubai is incredibly modern and has the tallest building in the world. (It’s called Burj Khalifa, and we ate on the 122nd floor looking down on all the other skyscrapers.)
Dubai has focused on tourism and finance, and it is a thriving center of work and prosperity. I am told more than 90 percent of the workers in Dubai are expatriates from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Europe, and other places. This heavy focus on tourism and economic growth means Dubai may be the most open city in the Arab world. We attended a packed, enthusiastic large Catholic Church on Sunday morning.
We also visited Abu Dhabi and toured the enormous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (which is home to the world’s largest unitary hand-knotted carpet, weighing nearly 48 tons), as well as the Louvre Abu Dhabi (the only Louvre outside France), which contains remarkable selections from the Paris museum. We ate lunch at Franco Nuschese’s Cafe Milano, which carried on the Washington DC restaurant tradition of excellent food and exemplary service.
However, the most amazing event was going to the Dubai Camel Racing Club.
We were on a half-day safari to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, hoping to see Arabian oryx and gazelles. I asked our guide if we would see any camels.
“Camels!?” He responded. “You want to see camels? That will be easy.”
Five minutes later, we were driving past the Dubai Camel Hospital on the way to the Dubai Camel Racing Club.
This turned out to be one of the more amazing examples of change in the modern world.
The racing club draws wealthy members from across the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudis, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis, as well as Emiratis.
Camel racing is a real passion for its enthusiasts, and great racing camels are as valuable as thoroughbred race horses. I was told of one camel that had recently sold for $8 million.
With this concentration of wealth, the club gives away four-wheel-drive SUVs, like Range Rovers to the winners and loans white SUVs to the camel owners, so they can participate in the race (I will explain participation in a moment).
About 15 years ago, camel racing was in crisis. Historically, camels were raced by very young, very small boys, who were from countries like Pakistan. The female camels typically used in racing simply couldn’t race with an adult jockey. They were not strong enough. Another kind of camel racing involves young camels, and they also cannot carry adult jockeys.
It became politically impossible for the Emirates to sustain traditional camel racing without suffering badly in world opinion.
However, this historic sport was saved when someone got the idea that a remote-controlled whip riding on the back of the camel could fulfill the role of jockey and be light enough for the camels to run flat out.
Technically, this is not a robot. Although that is what the camel club members call it. This is a remote controlled, single-purpose device.
Since the robot jockeys are remote controlled, the camel owners drive parallel to the dirt camel track on a multi-lane, paved road and increase or decrease the use of the whip as race strategy dictates. A walkie-talkie speaker is also attached to the robot that allows owners to communicate commands to their camels.
Callista and I watched in amazement as 30 or 40 camels were lined up just as horses would be in a horse race.
When the camels were set loose, all the owners’ cars charged after them. In addition, there was a TV camera drone overhead and two television trucks driving in the mix sending feeds to gigantic outdoor screens scattered across the area so that everyone could follow each race.
After the race, we watched as the camels were brought back in large groups. They were being treated with the same care we would expect at an American thoroughbred race.
The robot jockeys were an example of increasing employment opportunities as a response to cultural changes. Every owner now has to have a car and driver (so the owner could focus on the race and controlling the robot jockey). The drone, the TV trucks, the television control room – all these things increase employment. Maintaining the controls and the robot jockeys also requires trained technicians.
Satisfied that we had seen more camels than we had thought possible, we proceeded to the nature reserve. At one point, we saw a herd of Arabian oryx. They are breathtakingly beautiful with their white coats and their gracefully curved horns.
A few decades ago, they had been hunted to near extinction. Outside of zoos, there were only six in the wild in the 1970s, according to National Geographic. Today, hunting Arabian oryx is banned in the United Arab Emirates. Today, there are reportedly 10,000 in the UAE and another 5,000 in Abu Dhabi. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also taken steps to bring back the Arabian oryx. They are a success story in wildlife preservation and well worth visiting.
As you can imagine, we returned from Dubai with a lot of new thoughts.
Robot jockeys racing camels! Who knows what will surprise us next?
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