DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—A late-afternoon sandstorm had descended on the Al Marmoom racetrack, some 40 kilometers outside of Dubai, and dust swirled everywhere. But even with the harsh desert weather, the races went ahead as planned.
The camels—many of them owned by the royal families of the United Arab Emirates—galloped along a five-kilometer track, with the fastest ones zipping past the finish line, like clockwork, on or near the 7:40 mark. Stamped with electronic chips for identification, the animals are presented by their owners, along with parentage certificates specifying their breed and age, before every race. Afterwards, the top three finishers are taken to a nearby center to test for doping—routine fare for Dubai’s multimillion-dollar camel racing industry.
Though the camels can gallop as fast as 50 kilometers per hour (30 miles an hour)—slightly slower than the average racehorse—the most astonishing aspect of the races is not the ungulates’ blistering speed but the jockeys perched atop each animal. They weigh four to six pounds, and are equipped with remote-controlled whips that camel owners operate while driving along a parallel track in white, identical SUVs. These jockeys, in fact, are robots.
It’s a recent development in a sport traditionally used to mark weddings, celebrations and other important occasions. When petrodollars started pouring into Abu Dhabi after it became the first emirate to export oil in 1962, the country’s ruling sheikhs worried that rapid economic growth would erode traditional aspects of the UAE’s national heritage, including the centuries-old races. Lucrative cash prizes began to be doled out to winning owners, in order to keep camel racing popular.
However, an unintended consequence of the commercialization of the sport was a boom in child trafficking. As owners sought ever-faster times, children—some as young as four years old—were illegally brought from impoverished communities in South Asia and Africa to work as jockeys in the Gulf in the 1970s.
“Often [the] children were malnourished. They wanted them lighter, so they didn’t feed them. They suffered from lots of injuries. They would fall… it was a form of violence against children,” said Lara Hussein, chief of child protection at UNICEF’s Gulf area office in Dubai.
Although a 1980 UAE Federal Labor Code banned the employment of children younger than 15 years of age across all professions, children were used up until the early 2000s, when UAE authorities approached UNICEF for help in ending the practice. “They are the ones that came and said, ‘Please help us in eliminating this issue,’” said Hussein.
Yet ending the use of child jockeys required revolutionizing the sport. “We thought to ourselves, ‘How can we prevent children from riding the camels?’ So we decided, let’s make a robot,” said Rashid Ali Mohammed Ibrahim, manager at the Qatar-based RAQBI Center, which spearheaded the development of robot jockey technology in the Gulf.
Though the process was complex and riddled with trials-and-errors, robot jockeys have been in use in the Emirates since 2005. After an unsuccessful first prototype was developed by the Qatar Scientific Club, where Ibrahim serves as assistant general, a Swiss robotics firm called K-Team was selected to produce a viable alternative.
“Owners worried that the camel would not accept a robot jockey,” Ibrahim recalls, so the K-Team built robots to mimic the child’s weight and appearance. Early models even featured tanned faces that were meant to evoke the jockeys’ varied non-European origins.
While these robots proved capable of steering the camels, they were cumbersome, difficult to operate, and cost up to $10,000 each. (With a joystick remote control, the camel could be struck on the front, side, or back. The animals’ reins could also be shortened or lengthened.)
The ideal robot, as Ibrahim and RAQBI scientists soon found out, turned out to be much simpler. “What we discovered was the camel only needs one hit and then it will run. When we discovered this, we said, ‘Why did we make this huge robot?’ So we built a small, locally made one.” Unlike the K-Team design, the Qatari model costs only $300 and weighs a fraction of the 33-pound Swiss variety.
Beyond the introduction of robot jockeys, an entire industry dedicated to the sport has made camel racing much more competitive over the years. “There is a tremendous improvement in everything, in training, in breeding,” said Dr. Ulrich Wernery of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, who follows the sport closely.
In just 20 years, Wernery said, race times have dropped from around 20 minutes to 15 minutes for a 10-kilometer track. “It’s unbelievable. If you go to horse racing, this would never happen… And in the end, we don’t know in the future how fast they will go.”
While exact figures on the size of the camel racing industry are hard to come by, Wernery estimates it’s an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. (One Emirati at the Al Marmoom track said top camels are priced upward of $5 million, and prizes for first-place finishes at major competitions are hundreds of thousands of dollars.)
Regardless, ruling families in the UAE and across the Gulf—which contain many camel-racing enthusiasts—have led the sport’s monetization. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Dubai’s prime minister and vice president of the UAE, for instance, founded the CVRL, where Wernery works as scientific director.
A well-funded laboratory, the CVRL is a marvel of high-tech research and scientific application. Hundreds of top-breed camels have been artificially inseminated and delivered there, and the Center was also the first institute in the world to clone a camel. This year, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s best breeds was cloned after it passed away not long ago. “It came to life again, I say … wonderful bull,” the CVRL’s Wernery.
And while scientific application has improved race times, the introduction of robot jockeys has also revolutionized the culture of the sport. “There has really been a renaissance of the sport,” said Wernery. Before, he admits, “It was not nice when you went to the races. Too many police.”
As for camel-racing spectators, they, too, are pleased with the change. Ahmad, an Emirati at the Al Marmoom track boasted that robots could outpace even the lightest child jockeys by at least one-and-a-half to two minutes. The RAQBI Center´s Ibrahim expressed a similar satisfaction, saying that even if camel owners were allowed to use child jockeys, they wouldn’t any more. “If we tell the camel owners that we will let you use a child in the race, they will refuse,” he said. “Really, they will refuse.”
Aid workers agree. They say that the development of robot jockeys proves that technology can be the answer to a variety of humanitarian concerns. “There are some issues that can really be solved with innovation and technology,” said the UNICEF’s Hussein.