A strange sight was reported by the New York Times reporter Sam Borden that entailed peculiar bodies resembling DeWalt drills, draped in silk of bright color with a plastic whip while riding a camel. He was the one who reported on these robots, created in homes, and working as jockeys in camel races all around UAE. Camel races are a tradition that is quite old, however, it has seen some modern modifications incorporated into it during the last 30-40 years.
According to Borden, “It became significantly more popular as a formalized sport in the United Arab Emirates. They built racetracks with grandstands and a lot of the things you might see in a horse racing track in America. In the beginning, they were oftentimes using children from other countries — like Pakistan and Sudan, as young as 2 or 3 years old — because they were so light. And, obviously, from a human rights perspective, it was terrible.”
As the practice of using children as jockeys was outlawed about 10 years ago, the robots joined the game and became the new jockeys. Borden stated that these robot jockeys are being created from almost anything that they can get their hands on in a hardware store such as a drill and a plastic piece long enough to be used as a whip.
According to Borden, the robots are extremely lightweight and low-priced, costing only a couple hundred dollars and are equipped with a radio so that the trainer can communicate with his camel during the race.
“The owner of each camel will ride along the side of the track in a car and can talk to the camel. They make a sound that the camel will recognize so that it will be inspired to run faster. So they have the button from the keyless entry clicker to do the whip and also a walkee talkee so they can talk to the camel. So, yeah, it’s not a robot like C3PO or anything, but it has that mechanical look to it,” Borden explained.
In one of the recent races, it was seen that there are not many fans coming out to the race track; it’s usually just trainers, the owners of the camel and people involved in the sport. But the fans did tune in, as the TV ratings were quite high. The event takes place during early morning between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. so that the heat of the desert could be avoided, as it makes racing impossible.
“When you talk about sports in that part of the world — especially in Dubai or Qatar, where they’ve really been making a concerted effort to become a destination for western sports — a lot of it is based around the idea that they want outsiders to be a part of their sporting culture. Camel racing is, in a lot of ways, one of the few, still only for the Emiratis, only for the people in the Arabian region. It’s not a sport where you see a lot of ex-pat owners running camels”, Borden said.