• In the shadow of the World Cup (or not) camel racing is the most popular sport in Qatar

  • Professionalized since the 1970s, it has modernized like its robot jockeys

  • But he drags behind him a dark past linked to the trafficking of children, used as jockeys at the risk of their lives until the middle of the 2000s.

From our special correspondent at the Longchamp racecourse

A green band spreads out in the middle of the pale desert.

The lawn, mowed to the millimeter and watered abundantly, recalls the most beautiful racecourses.

Here, it is not horses but dromedaries that run and the piece of grass, placed in front of the imposing presidential stand, desperately empty on this usual racing day, is purely decorative.

“There are no races this weekend because of the World Cup final,” apologizes an employee of the Al-Shahaniya track, offering dates and a glass of water in compensation.

In front, Argentinian tourists are lounging on the large seats where rich Qataris, Saudis or Emiratis usually take their places, their eyes riveted on the giant screens where the races are projected – which take place a few hundred meters away.

“On race days, it's full of people here,” continues the employee.

It's a very, very popular sport.

“More than football?

" Much more !

The number one sport in the Gulf, which went from a Bedouin tradition to a professional discipline in the 1970s, has even had its own television channel for several years.

And rumor has it that his followers leave their place less easily than before the matches of the Qatar selection.

In the SUV of a racing camel owner

Leaving the stand to join the training track, where camels have no days off, a white SUV blocks the way.

Inside, a man in his thirties, Saeed, suggests we go upstairs.

“No English, only Arabic”.

The conversation will be painfully done via a translation app.

Saeed owns ten animals and boasts of having already won races.

"But not yet the most prestigious", those that can bring in up to more than a million euros, a new 4x4 and even "Sheikh Tamim's sword" prestigious eponymous race.

Like any successful sport, the economy of camel racing is experiencing a great boom and dreams of widening its field of influence thanks to the World Cup.

“Many tourists came to visit Al-Shahniya this month,” the owner is satisfied, while he proudly points to two of his animals accompanied by their “mudammer” (trainer).

For around fifty euros, count on a full four-hour tour with a visit to the barns and a front-row seat from a car, which remains the best place to see the action up close.

So much so that on race days, the roar of hundreds of SUVs accompany the camels on wide roads on either side of the track.

In 2019, Paris Saint-Germain players were able to try it out during a private race,

Robots took over from abused child jockeys

This Friday morning, it's a little quieter.

In general, training takes place in the early evening because of the temperatures.

“It's winter, it's less hot, so I prefer to come early, when there's nobody.

It's a good 30 degrees in the sun, all the same.

On the track, the mudammer prepares the mounts.

Impatient, Saeed urges him to get started, so he climbs on one of them.

On the other stands a robot jockey equipped with a microphone so that the dromedary can hear the encouragement of its master as well as a remote-controlled whip.

In his Toyota launched at 30 km/h, our Qatari howls into his walkie-talkie accompanying the ever longer strides of the animal with unsuspected elegance.

During an internship in Qatar 🇶🇦, the PSG players had an unprecedented activity to relax with a race of ... camels 🐪😅 pic.twitter.com/MWp8gmeD1b

— GOAL France 🇫🇷 (@GoalFrance) January 17, 2019

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This equipment has become the norm since the Emir formally banned the use of child jockeys in 2005 – the United Arab Emirates had preceded Qatar three years earlier.

The Doha Slavery Museum devotes part of its exhibition to these inhuman practices that certain unscrupulous breeders would perpetuate out of race: "In the middle of the 2000s, more than 40,000 children, mainly from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, served as jockeys in the Middle East.

Many of them suffered injuries during the races.

Since the banning of underage jockeys, some of them received no medical treatment, prolonging their suffering.

Some would die of it.


These children must not have weighed 20kg and therefore some of them were only 3 years old and others were malnourished.

They were often purchased from poor or indebted families.

One of them, quoted by a report by the NGO Save The Children: “We send them because we are poor.

Instead of watching my child starve to death, it's better for him to die somewhere else where I can't see him.

In addition to international pressure and the work of NGOs, robotic progress has in a more cynical way contributed to the abandonment of the practice, humanoid machines being increasingly light.

Camels doped with botox during a beauty contest

The question of animal abuse also arises.

A system of less painful discharges than the robot whip would thus be under study, while doping, a scourge that also appeared with the surge in victory bonuses, was stemmed by the appearance of blood tests and tracing... by a chip connected to iTunes.

In the other flagship discipline, beauty contests, doping also exists.

In 2019, several breeders were excluded from a competition in Saudi Arabia for injecting botox and hormones.

The use of cheating is not only a matter of money, prestige has a lot to do with it.

“Camel racing, and camels in general, are very important to the country, especially from a cultural point of view,” says Salem Al-Marri, another owner.

Much more than football.


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  • Sport

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