Camel racing: Centuries-old sport with a modern twist

Camel racing with robot jockeys
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Camel racing with robot jockeys 02:42

Story highlights

  • Camel racing is a centuries-old tradition in the Gulf
  • Modern technology is changing the sport
  • Camels compete for thousands of dollars in prize money

Dubai (CNN)It's with some trepidation that I set off for the Al Marmoum camel race in Dubai. As the only Gulf national in the CNN team, I am expected to be familiar with camel racing, an ancient tradition in the region. But despite my attempts to dress in a kandora, a UAE national dress, my modern outlook on life means I am a total outsider in this world.

A cheerful farm owner leads us inside the majlis -- meeting area -- where the camel owners are gathering. The wide space of the majlis feels like an ornate theater.
The camel owners are sitting on the floor, eating the a'aish, a traditional Arabic dish of fish and rice, laid out in front of them. The conversation is loud and exciting.
    We take our place on the floor and slowly, the world of camel racing begins to open up to us.
    The conversation is all about camels; the best breeds, famous old champions, training methods, bad losers and potential winners.
    Over Arabic coffee and dates I am told that remote controlled robots have replaced children as camel jockeys -- this primal sport is moving with the times.
    Once lunch is over, we head to the track for the racing to begin. There will be 14 races through the afternoon. And in addition to the honor and prestige, the camels are racing for thousands of dollars in prize money and fancy new cars for their owners.
    It's surprising how spectacular camel racing can be. Compared to the grace of thoroughbred racehorses, camels are indeed ungainly creatures.
    But 20 of these huge beasts pounding around a track in the desert is really a sight to behold, their hooves throwing up a cloud of dust in their wake. Their owners hang out of their four-by-fours, shouting encouragement while trying to keep up with their charges. It is oddly beautiful.
    The winning camels are paraded with pride, their heads and necks covered in bright golden saffron and their owners applauded for their efforts and rewarded with cash prizes.
    As we excitedly watch the final race draw to a close, the sun sets across the sky of this metropolis. Camel racing bears no relevance to the modernity embraced here, but this old-fashioned sport is equally as fascinating.