Raising Dust in The Desert - Qatar’s Camel Races
Leaving Qatar's Middle Eastern metropolis, Doha, and heading west into the arid, dusty landscape of the desert is a strange assault on the senses. Away from the bright lights of the big city, the towering skyscrapers, the modern Arabian architecture and bustling humanity, the endless horizon of rock and sand, punctuated by small traditional settlements, feels oddly remote. If it were not for the modern five lanes highways, you might feel as though you had been transported back in time. Camel trains of Bedouin merchants trekking across the desert wouldn't look in the slightest bit out of place.
Though the camel caravans of the past are long gone from the Qatari peninsula, you can still spot camels across this desert landscape. Towards the north of Qatar, in the designated national parks, wild camels can be seen roaming the land. To the south of the city, and at the beginnings of the dunes rolling towards Saudi Arabia, camels can be found, bred in captivity, for recreational pursuits and tourist activities such as camel riding and trekking. And, as part of an initiative that keeps this camel loving nation in touch with their nomadic roots and heritage, camels can be seen, to the west of Doha, at Al Shahaniya, the country's premier camel race track.
Camel Racing in the 21st Century
Camel racing is not a new sport to Qatar. However, racing on a purpose-built track with a host of facilities and amenities close at hand, and a trackside roadway for SUV's to follow the action, are definitely modern additions.
Across the Arabian Peninsula, camel racing has existed for many hundreds of years. Camel racing, traditionally practised at social gatherings and festivals, has been part of the regional culture for centuries. Camels, before the oil boom of the 20th century, were integral to life in the desert. As a provider of transport, food, clothing and shelter (from hair and hides), camels were highly regarded. A tribe or an individual's wealth was denoted by the number and quality of camels owned. Camel races were not just fun events for spectators; they were also a show of status and financial standing. And, the traditions and customs practised alongside the races held significant meaning to the nomadic way of life.
With the discovery of oil and the onset of Qatar's modernisation, camel ownership declined. With the practical need for camels disappearing and aspects of the nation's deep-rooted way of life in danger of extinction, Qataris took up camel racing with renewed enthusiasm in the 1970s. As such, several camel racing tracks were opened in the desert to the west of Doha. This investment sparked the beginning of the country's development of professional-level camel racing. Cementing the sport's growth was the establishment of the present track at Al Shahaniya in 1990 under the order of the former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. And, the formation of the Camel Racing Organizing Committee (CROC), headed by Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Faisal Al Thani.
Today Qatar's camel racing industry, which continues with support from the current Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is a multi-million dollar business and an extremely lucrative form of revenue. It is a televised sporting event that attracts participants and spectators from across the region and much of the globe. Handsome prizes are offered at major competitions, and well-bred, well-performing camels can sell for a high price. As such, sophisticated training, breeding and general husbandry methods are now employed in the rearing of camels for racing. And, tracks are equipped with the latest technology. However, beyond the cranking wheels of the industry remains the camel's symbolic significance and its reflection of the cultural background of the local people. The camel racing of today plays a vital role in keeping ancient traditions and customs alive.
So, how can you experience this age-old sport modernised for the 21st century, and what can you expect when you get there?
The Al Shahaniya Racetrack
Three oval tracks, for 6, 8 and 10km races, dominate much of the Al Shahaniya Racetrack facilities. Each track a sandy runway for herds of racing camels, and equipped with lighting for evening races and tarmacked roads either side for trainers and spectators to follow the race.
Other facilities include terraces, veterinary clinic, training facilities, stalls for the camels, a mosque and amenities.
On race days, and after a pre-race dash to warm up, the camels are positioned behind starting gates. Once the starting signal sounds, the gates are opened, and the race begins with the sudden rush of long-necked and gangly legged beasts leaping out of their docks. And, then the sprint is on.
On both sides of the track, SUVs speed after the racing camels. Spectators are treated to a wild ride while watching their favourite animals perform. Commentators follow the live-action and broadcast the event via the track speakers. And, trainers race alongside scrutinising progress and performance, while shouting commands to their animal via walkie-talkies that connect to the jockey. (The jockey being a small humanoid-shaped, remote-controlled robot sitting on the camel's back and dressed in bright racing silks.
The noise, the flying dust clouds, the slightly bizarre sight of the running camels and the thrill of racing alongside them, make for an exhilarating day. It is no wonder that this revived sport has gained so much popularity since the 1970s.
If there is one sport to see while in Qatar, and one that mixes tradition and modernity to such a delightful effect, it is camel racing in the desert...
When to Visit
The camel racing season generally starts in or around October and culminates in March/April time with the major racing competitions of the season.
Local races are usually held on Fridays and Saturdays in the morning from 6 am - 9 am, and in the afternoon from 1 pm - 4 pm.
Annual races include the Emir’s Main Race, the top annual camel race in Qatar which attracts participants from all over the Gulf. The annual races usually take place between 7 am and 2 pm on Fridays.
You can also visit the racetrack in the mornings to watch training sessions in action. Training generally starts between 9:30 am and 10 am.
Entry to the track and the races is free. However, you must have a 4x4 or SUV car to join the races, the police will not let you follow the race in a sedan for safety reasons.
For more information on race times and events, contact the racetrack:
- Tel: +974 4487 2028 / 4448 6900
How to Get There
Under an hour away from Doha city centre, Al Shahaniya Racetrack is located in the centre of the Qatari peninsula and is surrounded by a desert landscape. The track sits next to the small settlement of Ash-Shahaniya, just off the Dukhan Highway.
To reach the racetrack:
- Head west out of Doha and on to the Dukhan Highway at Education City.
- From Education City, the journey to Al Shahaniya takes about 30 minutes, taking you past the Mall of Qatar and the FIFA World Cup Al Rayyan Stadium on the right, and Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani Museum on the left.
- Signs to the racetrack will direct you off of the highway just past the Al Shahaniya and Woqod petrol stations.
- The road to the track runs to the right from the Dukhan Highway.
- The track sits on the left-hand side of the road.
Caring for the Arabian horse, one of the oldest, most respected and loved breeds in the world, plays an essential role in preserving Qatar's cultural heritage.
Learn about the costs associated with raising a racehorse, why the benefits far outweigh the costs, and how Qatar is capitalising on the market.
If you want to see and ride some of the most beautiful horses in the world, there are plenty of places in Qatar waiting to welcome you.
From watching the races to breeding, training and racing horses, both at home and around the world, this sport has become increasingly popular in Qatar.