In Qatar, camel racing is “more popular” than football

From our special correspondent on Longchamp racecourse

A green band spread across the pale desert. The lawn, cut to the millimeter and watered abundantly, recalls the best racetrack. Here, not horses but dromedaries run and the patch of grass, placed in front of the impressive presidential stand, desperately empty on this typical race day, is purely decorative. “There are no races this weekend because of the World Cup final,” apologized an employee of the Al-Shahaniya track, offering dates and a glass of water as compensation.

At the front, Argentinian tourists lean on the large seats where wealthy Qataris, Saudis or Emiratis usually sit, their eyes fixed on the giant screens on which the races – taking place a few hundred meters away – are projected. . “On race days, it’s packed with people here,” the employee continued. It is a very popular sport. “More than football? ” More ! The number one sport in the Gulf, which came from a Bedouin tradition to a professional discipline in the 1970s, even had its own television channel for a few years. And rumor has it that it’s easier his followers left their place than before the selection matches in Qatar.

In the SUV of a racing camel owner

Leaving the stand to join the training track, where the camels have no sun, a white SUV blocks the way. Inside, a man in his thirties, Saeed, suggests we go upstairs. “No English, only Arabic”. It would be painful to do the conversation through a translation app. Saeed owns ten animals and boasts that he has already won races. “But not yet the most prestigious”, those that can bring up to more than a million euros, a new 4×4 and even “Sheikh Tamim’s sword” prestigious eponymous race.

Here, the camels are even taking selfies – Nathan Denette / AP / SIPA

Like any successful sport, the economy of camel racing is experiencing a great boom and dreams of expanding its sphere of influence thanks to the World Cup. “Many tourists came to visit Al-Shahniya this month,” the owner was pleased, as he proudly pointed to two of his animals accompanied by their “mudammer” (trainer). For around fifty euros, expect a full four-hour tour with a visit to the barns and a front-row seat from a car, which remains the best place to see the action up close. So on race days, the rumble of hundreds of SUVs keep pace with the camels on the wide roads on both sides of the track. In 2019, Paris Saint-Germain players tried it out in a private race, Thomas Tuchel and Neymar emerging victorious from this battle between overexcited Parisian riders.

Robots take in abused young jockeys

This Friday morning, it was pretty quiet. Generally, training takes place in the early evening due to the temperatures. “It’s winter now, it’s not that hot, so I prefer to go early, when there are no people. It’s a nice 30 degrees in the sun, all the same. At the track, the mudammer prepares the mounts. Impatient, Saeed urges him to start, so he climbs into one of them. On the other side stood a robot jockey equipped with a microphone so the dromedary could hear his master’s encouragement as well as a distant whip. In his Toyota launched at 30 km/hour Qatari howls into his walkie-talkie, keeping up with the longer strides of this unexpectedly elegant animal.

This equipment has been standard since the Emir formally banned the use of child jockeys in 2005 – the United Arab Emirates preceded Qatar three years ago. The Doha Slavery Museum devotes part of its exhibition to these inhumane practices that some unscrupulous breeders perpetuate outside the race: “In the mid-2000s, more than 40,000 children, mainly from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, served as jockeys. in the Middle East. Many of them have been injured in races. Since the ban on minor jockeys, some of them have not received medical treatment, prolonging their suffering . Some will die. »

These children should not weigh 20kg and therefore some of them are only 3 years old and others are malnourished. They were often bought from poor or indebted families. One of them, a report by the NGO Save The Children quoted: “We send them because we are poor. Instead of watching my son starve to death, it’s better that he die somewhere else where I can’t see him. In addition to international pressure and the work of NGOs, the development of robotics in a more cynical way has contributed to the abandonment of training, humanoid machines are especially light.

Camels are doped with botox in a beauty contest

The question of animal abuse also arose. A system of less painful discharges than the robot whip is being studied, while doping, a scourge that also appeared with the influx of victory bonuses, came from the emergence of blood tests and monitoring.. .through a chip connected to iTunes. In other flagship disciplines, there are beauty contests, also doping. In 2019, several breeders were excluded from a competition in Saudi Arabia for injecting botox and hormones. Using fraud is not just a matter of money, prestige has a lot to do with it. “Camel racing, and camels in general, are very important to the country, especially from a cultural point of view,” said Salem Al-Marri, another owner. More than football. To believe that if there is no test on the day of the World Cup final, it is so that he will not be overshadowed.

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