Introduction to Camel Racing

The best part of a rodeo is the access.  A rodeo is like a charming small town.  It is easy to access the animals, talk to the riders and see behind the scenes.

The best part of horse racing is the hype, the VIP guests in fancy cars, and the thrill of the photo finish.

Oman’s camel racing is the delightful combination of both.  You can get close to the animals or let your imagination run wild watching private security escort VIP guests.  I think of camel racing as a place where people come together and everyone is welcome.

Normally, the grounds of the Royal Camel Association (RCA) are closed to the public and armed guards monitor the gate.  However, during the races the gates are open to all levels of class or culture. For this last event, the season finale, a guard greeted me with the unusual, “Hello. How are you?” This is unusual because typically even an English speaking guard would have started with a standard Arabic greeting.  

After being welcomed through the giant gates, I drove the long curved driveway, which was lined with manicured flowers, palm trees & perfectly placed flags of Oman.

I parked, walked to the open-air stadium and observed.  Another spectator, an Omani man, approached me, greeted me and offered to explain everything.  I was not surprised because Omanis are quite friendly.  Typically, if you show up to a cultural event they will gladly help you understand what is happening.

He started by informing me that the Bedu (nomads from the desert, pronounced in English as “bed-ewe”) don’t like walls and modern buildings so the formal black tens in the center of the arena are for them.  To him it was the only way they could view the races comfortably.

Tents for visitors from the desert.

Tents for visitors from the desert.

I noticed that there were about 30 camels inside of a temporary fence.  The fence was on the inside of the track.  I asked why they were there.  He grinned and admitted, “Those are for the tourists so they can watch the camels between races.”  I assure you that’s exactly what we did. 

He explained that the prizes are vehicles & that the government purchases the winning camels.  This was interesting to me.  Gambling is not allowed and I hadn’t realized there were financial prizes involved.  Apparently, winning is lucrative and an honor.  He explained that when the government purchases the winning camels the owners become quite wealthy men. 

It was difficult to tell how much the camels were purchased for.   My impromptu educator told me that the winning camels are purchased for 1 million rials ($2,600,000 USD).  In the next breath he said, “Ya know, a one with ten zeros, oh wait, or is that a hundred thousand?”  It was clear we were going to get nowhere with English numbers.  So he tried to explain that the winner could quit work, buy a nice apartment in the city and live there forever without working.  I’m not sure about this either.  I acted like I completely understood this line of discussion.  I chose to assume that the prize is over 100,000 and less than a million.  While this is a large gap either payment would be a good day. (I keep asking around to see if I can find clarity on this point. I’ve had no luck yet.)

I thanked him for the generous education but had to move on. I had promised to meet some friends.  I found my friends and sat to watch the events.

A friend caught me preparing for another shot.

A friend caught me preparing for another shot.

A camel race is 8km.  It starts far enough away that it is outside of view.  Off in the distance there is suddenly a cloud of dust rising up to the sky like smoke from a large fire.  The announcers voice comes to life. 

A cloud of dust in the distance.

A cloud of dust in the distance.

A short minute later you see a tiny flicker of sunlight glint off the windows of the chaser vehicles.  Another minute and the camels cross a half-kilometer from the stadium and vanish again.

Camels & chaser cars crossing in the distance.

Camels & chaser cars crossing in the distance.

We all watched the jumbo TV screen.  I have no idea what the announcer was saying.  My Arabic is basic.  I was just sitting there watching the TV, watching the fans, watching the camels in the middle of the track (remember, the camels for the tourists). 

Finally, from about one kilometer away, left of the stadium we began to see the cars barreling down the side of the track at 30km/hour.  Then the camels came into view.  The tiny robotic riders strangely balanced astride the crazy gated runners. 

Approaching up the side of the track.

Approaching up the side of the track.

Adorable robotic rider.

Adorable robotic rider.

Many of the camels were covered in foamy saliva.  Before you knew it they crossed the finish line.  Some camels finished at full speed.  Some of the camels finished barely at a trot.  Despite the encouragement from the remote controlled robots they were too tired to keep running full speed to the end. 

Bits of foam all the way to his shoulder.

Bits of foam all the way to his shoulder.

Occasionally, one camel would come trotting down the track five minutes after the race finished.  No one was chasing him. No one seemed to care that he was taking his time. 

He is like the kid in high school that rolls up late to class. He doesn’t care when he is supposed to show up.  He is doing his own thing.

Fashionably late to the finish.  It's been so long the race results aren't even showing on the screen anymore.

Fashionably late to the finish.  It's been so long the race results aren't even showing on the screen anymore.

We waited. I chatted with my friends.  I ate the little snacks that were delivered to my seat.  I tried to convince a photographer to take me to the inside of the track to meet the Bedu.  Failed. I tried someone else. Failed.  I tried a third time and was told I need a security badge.  Failed.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  I went back to my seat.

The official photographers crossing the track.

The official photographers crossing the track.

I waited. My mind wandered. I took some pictures. I watched the “tourist” camels in the center of the track. I daydreamed.  And BAM! …there was a cloud of dust and the announcers voice came to life.