Camel Racing < OMAN EXPLORER


A young Bedu shows off prized
thoroughbred camels outside a
racecourse at Al Mudhaibi —
Pictures by Abdullah Ibrahim al Shuhi

In the dusty flatlands of Al Mudhaibi wilayat, camel breeding is raking in big bucks for an enterprising, young breed of Bedouins who, nevertheless, remain true to their desert-bound lifestyle and traditions

of the Gulf on fire, in high-stakes races that rival horse races in both prestige and money.

With Omani thoroughbreds more in demand than other Arabian camels, good sprinters can command fabulous prices ranging from RO60,000 to RO100,000 a head.

The Al Abiadh camel racetrack, just off the Sinaw-Mahawt road, draws some of the finest camels during the racing season.

Camel breeding is big business in Al Mudhaibi

What has long been an important element of traditional desert life is today a money-spinner for a growing number of Bedu men.

In parts of Al Mudhaibi wilayat in the Sharquiyah region, camels are no longer bred for their milk or meat, or as beasts of burden.

Instead, they are groomed to be the thoroughbred versions of the legendary Arabian steed. Coveted by wealthy shaikhs of the Gulf region,these prized thoroughbreds will set the racecourses

Racing camels are reared on a rich
fibre-based diet

It is located some 30 km from historical Sinaw town which stands, as it did for centuries, at the crossroads of Bedu camel caravan routes (albeit plied by pick-ups in today's modern times).

An eight-km circular racetrack has been built on this sprawling featureless plain, dotted by stunted desert vegetation. Recent showers in the area had covered this wind-swept landscape with a fine veneer of grass, attracting bands of pastoral Bedouins with their flocks of goats and sheep.

Camel breeding is a lucrative pursuit
for young Bedu

While grazing their herds, they live in barastis — makeshift dwellings made from date palm fronds.

"It's excellent business for us Bedu," says Shaikh Abdullah Ali Said al Ghufaili, the owner of two young thoroughbreds.

"Even if you set up a company, you can't hope to make something in the range of RO70,000 against every transaction, in this case, a camel."

Grooming these dromedaries into fine runners is the job of veteran trainer Mubarak bin Said bin Salem al Wahaibi, whose charges have generally excelled on the racetracks.

Their success has won their owners attractive prizes like cars and, often, bids from prospective buyers mainly from the UAE, who quote up to RO90,000 for a prize runner. Mubarak has three camels of his own, all thoroughbreds, he says.

Racing thoroughbreds are first put through their paces when they are about two years old

During the 1995/96 racing season, his camels won him a total of 15 cars in prizes at major racing events.

During 1997, the professional trainer says he helped clinch deals worth RO450,000 involving a total of five prized camels, all sold to wealthy shaikhs in the UAE. Mubarak is the wilayat's top camel trainer.

Omani thoroughbred camels command fabulous prices
ranging from RO60,000 to RO100,000 at racecourses in the UAE

At the start of the training season, from June through to October, he can find as many as 100 camels under his care. They are either trucked to the training venue by pick-ups or herded there on foot if the distance involved is less than 80 km, he says.

During the course of the programme, however, the number of camels in training whittles down as some cannot endure the rigours of the training regimen, or lack mettle on the racetrack.

Racing thoroughbreds are first put through their paces when they are about two years old, says Mubarak. Initially the animals are trained to obey basic commands issued by the jockey.

Then, a crucial two-kilometre gallop decides which among them have the stomach for the further rigours of the race field. To help build their stamina, the camels are made to run certain distances every day, which varies in proportion to their age.

Two-year old camels run 1 to 2 km on average; three-year olds cover an average 2.5 km or up 5 km. Five-year old animals run up to 6 km per day.

In fact, these hardy creatures, whose ilk have endured the ravages of the harsh desert environment since they first walked the earth, get virtually the same fawning care deserving of a prized Italian sports car.

They are scrubbed and shampooed twice a week, any bruis daubed with expensive ointments, and at night, kept warm with blankets and sheets. Their diet is not the usual thorny shrubs of desert vegetation.

A racing thoroughbred receives fawning attention
from his minders

Instead they are reared on rich fibre-based fare, which includes the finest honey and dates, fresh cow milk and ghee, wheat and freshly harvested alfalfa grass. In summer, they are fed the tender leaves of the sidr tree.

Every few hours, camel owners arrive in their pick-ups laden with loads of fresh fodder and tanks of water. Care is taken to ensure that only the most nutritive fare is offered to the camels.

Mouth-guards also ensure that the animals do not graze on desert vegetation, lest they lose their stamina and consequently their racing prowess. Weekly stomach purges also help the creatures remain in fine fettle.

During the racing season, says Shaikh Abdullah, each camel owner spends between RO200 and RO400 every month, on nutritive feeds and other essentials. It's a small price to insure the health and well-being of animals worth upwards of RO50,000 each, he notes.In fact, it's not the camel-breeders alone that gain from this multi-million riyal pursuit.

The demand for large quantities of fresh honey, dates, cow milk, ghee and fodder has translated into better incomes for local farmers in the wilayat. Camel trappings are also in demand.

The windfall amounts to be made on camel deals however seem to have little or no bearing on the desert-bound lifestyle of the Bedu camel owners. From time to time, they return to their homes in tiny coastal or village hamlets of the Al Sharquiyah and Al Wosta regions, to continue their timeless kinship with their desert environment.