You are here:   Home > Resources > United Arab Emirates > Camel Racing
  |  Login

Camel Racing in the Gulf

Minimize

Index

Notes on the Evolution of a Traditional Cultural Sport

by Sulayman Khalaf

The following article appeared in the 1999 edition of Anthropos pp 85 -106

Abstract
1. An Emiri Introduction
From Camel to Truck
From Truck to Camel Again
Continuity and Change in Camel Racing
2. Modern Media Information Aspects
3. Organizational Development Aspects
The Racetracks
The Introduction of Different Races for Different Breeds of hejin
The Introduction of Different Distances for Various Age-Groups
Organization of Races According to Types of Owners
Feeding and Management
The Training of Racing Camels
4. The Economico-Political Aspects
Salaries and Wages
Selling and Buying Racing Camels
Camel Markets
Marketing and Advertising
5. The Politico-Cultural Aspects
6. Conclusion: Aspects of Local/Global Dynamics
Footnotes
References Cited

Abstract: The paper offers an ethnographic documentation of camel racing as a growing traditional cultural heritage sport in contemporary Gulf Arab societies. An integrated anthropological approach is used in describing and analyzing the multiple aspects and functions of the races as an evolving cultural revival within the broad contexts of oil wealth, the building of modem nation-state, and modem global forces. Camel racing is analyzed as an activity for distributing oil wealth among the Bedu segment of the United Arab Emirates national population, as a significant component in the enterprise of statecraft and state formation, and as cultural festivals for preserving and promoting national cultural identity which appears threatened by multiple global cultural flows and dynamics. [United Arab Emirates Society, Bedouin culture in the Gulf; cultural revival, Middle Eastern popular culture and oil, sociocultural change.

Sulayman Khalaf, M. A. (1975, American University of Beirut), Ph. D. (1981, University of California, Los Angeles), Associate Prof. of Anthropology at United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain. Publications: numerous articles (in English, and Arabic) on tribal peasant communities in Syria, and on sociocultural change in contemporary Gulf Arab societies.

Return to Index

1. An Emiri Introduction

The dawn of the great transformation in the Bedouin world is pictured for us by the novelist Abdul Rahman Munif. One day a Bedouin Emir stood among his fellow tribesmen of Wadi Al 'Uyoun in the Cities of Salt and said to them, "Oh ya Ibn Rashed there are here under our own feet seas of oil, seas of gold and al khaweya [the foreign brethren of the oil companies] have come to dig out the oil and the gold" (Munif 1985: 87). The Emir went on to say, "Oh people of Wadi Al 'Uyoun, you will be the richest and happiest of all people, as if Allah sees nobody but you. You have been patient for long. Allah is witness to that. But now you will be living a new life as if in a dream. You will talk about your old days as if they were just stories to be told. You the wise and senior men of Wadi Al 'Uyoun; your duty now is to facilitate the work of our friends, and serve them with your very own eyes" (1985: 85).

Prior to the al khaweya (the foreign oil companies) uncapping the great of oil reserves in the Gulf, the Bedu of Arabia fully utilized the camel as "the technology" -- a la Julian Steward -- upon which they depended for exploiting the meager and constantly changing givings of their desert homeland. The Bedu perceived the pattern of their pastoral life as something always changing. They viewed their world as precarious and unpredictable like the changing clouds above them. This world view is captured in their saying, "Ye men! Your world is like clouds, swiftly changing." Therefore, it was no wonder that they looked to the sky in search for good pastures for their camel herds and their own well-being. They did not think that one day, as their Emir foresaw, they would be showered by plenty of good from underground, and not the sky.

Return to Index

From Camel to Truck

The people of the Arabian Gulf have undergone rapid and profound transformations during their own lifetime, so much so that now they indeed talk about old times as if they were only stories to be told. During the initial phases of the black gold rush, from the early 60s to the late 70s, the camel and its desert ecology were swiftly neglected and marginalized. It was not easy for traditional socioeconomic organizations based on a subsistence economy to adjust rapidly to an entirely new economic system linked to the complex and aggressive capitalist commercial forces of the global economy. This resulted in the collapse of the traditional economic activities like pearling, sea-borne trade, fishing, ship building, small-scale oasis agriculture, and pastoralism.

The old small towns and villages dotting the shores of the Gulf were transformed into glittering cities built out of concrete, steel, and glass. These expanding capital cities drew like powerful magnets the Bedu, who were always ready to move where the grass was greener. Now the Bedu of the Arabian Gulf have settled in these towns and cities to enjoy the lulling comforts of an affluent sedentary consumer life, with extensive free welfare services and provisions.

Within the new economic context many of the previous benefits and uses of the camel that were essential to the Bedu pastoral way of life came to disappear quite rapidly. In the new oil cultural ecology the camel that once was the all-wonderful, all-purpose 4-khuf (hoot) driving machine gave way to the Toyota 4-wheel driving machine. The fast shift from camel to truck, as Chatty (1986) succinctly described change for the Bedu, is seen on a large scale in contemporary Gulf societies. The camel that once was known among the Arabs as safinat al sahra (ship of the desert) has retired from sailing across the desert sand dunes, and now gets carried on wheels. It is a frequent sight on the highways of Arabia to see trucks of all sizes carrying camels to various destinations including the camel racetracks.1

An ethnographic gaze while traveling along the highway between cities in the Gulf can provide us with further pictures depicting the marginalization of the camel. Many of the modern highways in a country like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are nowadays fenced with barbed wire for hundreds of miles so as to keep wandering camels, as it were, off the fast lanes of modern economic life. During the initial phase of building the highways across the wide desert terrain car accidents caused by wandering camels were fatal and alarming in their frequency. Thus came the need to fence the highways to keep camels off and provide road safety, particularly at night for the new Gulf man as he moved about in his air-conditioned vehicle in the modem traffic of his new oil ecology, where the car and the mobile phone rule supreme as the new technology in Steward's sense of the term. 2

Return to Index

From Truck to Camel Again

The rapid marginalization of the camel experienced throughout the Gulf and Arabia du6ng the early decades of the oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s came to be halted in a significant way. The collapse of traditional economic activities within the context of the overall rapid economic modernization triggered by oil wealth brought a realization of the importance of preserving and reviving traditional culture. The camel in general and racing camels in particular came to be in the thick of this cultural revival phenomenon. Racing camels, known locally as al hejin 3, are returning in large numbers, carried by trucks from near and far throughout the Gulf to the large- racetracks built nowadays near most major cities. As in the UAE during the long racing season, from October to April, the slender tall hejin become the center of attention for increasing numbers of local and foreign enthusiasts and onlookers.4 While they perform on the track, the television screen brings this sport to every family in the comfort of their own homes. Moreover, they bring all the people involved in this growing industry not only cultural satisfaction and social honor but actually large material benefits. These racing camels bring their owners and trainers luxury four-wheelers and beautiful sedan cars such as Mercedes and BMWs.

In anthropological/sociological research we often look into the timing of a given phenomenon and its scale. Why is a specific phenomenon appearing at this particular time, and why is it manifesting itself in certain magnitudes and intensities? Over the last two decades the sport has grown at an exponential rate: for example, 4,000 camels took part in the eight day finals of the 1996/97 camel racing season at Nad Al Shiba track in Dubai, performing in 154 rounds. A similar number appeared on Al Wathba track in Abu Dhabi Emirate immediately following the Dubai races.

In view of the fact that cultural revival is growing so fast as to reach levels of national industry in the Arabian Gulf societies, the aim of my research is to document this process as it is manifested in camel racing. In addition to ethnographic documentation of the phenomenon in the United Arab Emirates, other aims can be stated by a number of analytical questions that direct our attention to explore the various dimensions surrounding the return of the camel as a heritage revival phenomenon in the Gulf. Why is heritage revival appearing at this time juncture as an expanding national cultural industry? How is this cultural production being affected by rapid modernization processes that are heavily influenced by larger globalization forces? What are the continuing and changing aspects and elements in the reproduction of such cultural activities? Why and how are the state and other sectors of UAE society supporting the preservation of national heritage? What are the multifaceted dimensions and functions of this rising heritage phenomenon in the oil rich Gulf societies? Why is the production of the past, of cultural nostalgia, particularly significant in the context of what Davis (1991) terms "statecraft and state formation" in present-day Gulf societies? How is the oil state using its wealth to develop an appropriate political discourse to preserve national identity, strengthen its own legitimacy, and solidify its authority structure? It is hoped that: this research topic can illuminate further the dynamics of cultural change occurring now in the Arabian Gulf.

Providing a meaningful analytical answer to the question of why camel racing in the UAE and the Gulf is now being practiced on a large scale requires that we go beyond the races and heritage revival as such, and contextualize them within the broader ongoing processes of oil economy, the building of a modem nation-state, and increasing global forces acting on the local culture. Here we need analytical insights gained from combining both political economy and global cultural economy perspectives. The first can inform us about the complex interplay between leadership, politics, culture, domination, and economic forces or conditions. The second perspective, which has been developed recently by globalization theorists (Appadurai 1990; Featherstone 1990; Robertson 1995) will turn our analytical attention to the interplay, fusion and/or reactions generated between global and local cultural dynamics as the UAE society is undergoing rapid change.

Return to Index

Continuity and Change in Camel Racing

In the UAE, as well as other Gulf societies, heritage revival including camel racing is reaching levels of national industry. This has involved the mobilization of labor, capital, and integrated organization of many people, agencies, and institutions. However, to give our ethnographic description of camel heritage revival a historical framework, it is useful to present first a brief sketch of camel racing in the past. This will enable us to contextualize and appreciate the scope and complexity of the modem development of the races.

In the former pastoral way of life, the Bedu of Arabia utilized the camel in maximal ways, not only to survive in the harsh environment in terms of food and transport but also in raiding and numerous political activities as well as in sport and recreation. For the Bedu it was an all-purpose 4-hoof driving machine that was adapted and utilized in both material and symbolic cultural terrains.

Local informants explained that camel racing in the past could be viewed as falling into two categories: races during "social celebrations" and "competition races." In the old days such sportive recreational activities were fully integrated within the mainstream of social economic life of the Bedu which in general lacked the institutions of certain cultural activities whereby numerous and elaborate rules get invented and established.

Races, which were performed on festive social occasions and celebrated by the local community, included religious feasts, celebrating rainfall, weddings, circumcision, and perhaps the occasional visit of a prominent tribal shaikh. During such festive occasions people displayed their colorful rugs and cloths on tent ropes. These races were basically an ardha, a show, which ran across 300-500 m. One or two men sang loud heroic war songs, and riders exhibited their riding skills while brandishing their swords or old rifles, or stood holding hands while two or three camels ran parallel to each other. When tribesmen visited the villages or camps of their kinsmen during religious Eids, feasts, they usually performed a short ardha race on their mounts before coming in the tent to greet the people and share coffee and dates with them. In the races of festive celebrations there were occasional individual competitions for sport, but the winners received no prizes. Sometimes, however, in wedding celebrations the first, or occasionally the first three winning camels got prizes from the family of the groom. Prizes in those days were small symbolic statements, basically shara (sign) or namous (recognition), represented materially in a dagger, head cloth, or other items of clothing.

In competition races riders were usually arranged for the race a day ahead of time, and the evening before the race they agreed on the starting point. A shara (prize) was usually declared ahead of time. Such competitions were usually arranged as a resu1t of a challenge (wahna) among camel owners, or it could have been triggered by a visit of a leading shaikh who put forward a prize for the race. Sometimes competing riders went and spent the night at the starting point. Each would guard his mount carefully throughout the night to prevent foul play from other competitors. The race usually started early in the morning. Racing distances were relatively short, extending between 3 to 4 km. Unlike today, camels sat down at the starting line, and upon hearing a short cry, they rose up and ran. The owner of a particularly fast camel was usually asked not to participate. Instead he was given a sadda (compensation) in order to give a reasonable chance to other competing camels and to make the race more unpredictable and exciting. Rules governing age categories of competing camels and the ages and weights of riders were almost nonexistent. As recently as the early 1970s, race camels were ridden by their owners, usually the nimble youngsters in the family.

The advent of oil in the emirates in the early 60s did not bring about an immediate change to camel racing. There were local races in each emirate, and these usually preceded the larger inter-emirate races. In the Dubai local races, for example, they sometimes ran the long distance of 15 km a1ong the beach from Chicago Beach to Al Shindaga, or a lesser distance from Al Safa to Al Shindaga. Usually shaikhs gave prizes to winning participants. Races in the 60s and 70s took place in a seih, rain flood flat land as in Seih Al She'aib in Dubai, upon which later the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway was built. The starting point for this race was known as al medfa' and the finishing point as al mehjel.

As noted by one informant, challenge and passion were the high excitement of the locals, particularly in the inter-emirates races. These larger races were always headed and patronized by the ruling shaikhly families, and the prizes were provided by the ruling shaikh of the emirate in which the race took place. Even in these races, rules regarding camel types, age categories or riders were lacking. Old films of the emirates in the late 60s show footage of camel racing where large numbers of cars follow the camels, creating dust storms and adding to the feeling of general commotion and excitement.

The production and organization of modem camel racing in the UAE is radically different from 30 years ago. Then the races were held occasionally in small local communities; now the scope and depth of change has touched all aspects of the races, so much so that they now appear beyond recognition for many old locals. These modem developments can be delineated by an analytical description of the different aspects which make up this still expanding heritage sport. It should be noted that these various aspects, functions, and dynamics are all interconnected in complex ways; they are identified here separately only for analytical purposes.. They include the modem media, new organizational developments, economic, political, and cultural aspects as well as aspects related to the interplay between local and global forces.

Return to Index

2 Modern Media Information Aspects

Modem mass media, represented by television, radio, newspapers, and magazines is the leading agency involved in the production and propagation of heritage revival activities in contemporary UAE society. With the broad transformation of society came an increasing decline of traditional methods of communication. Subsequently, television has emerged over the last 20 years to rule supreme over all other agencies of modem communication technologies. Every year during the long camel-racing season (October to early April), television has made the spectacle of camel racing, as well as other types of heritage festivals, within reach of every home.

Those who get attracted by camel races on television and venture out to the track to see performances in reality are caught in an ironical situation. Spectators find themselves in front of television screens at the racetrack itself, as this is the only way to watch the slender, racing hejin run around the very large track. The track is locally referred to as al doura (circle) or al mirkadh (running place), and since it is 10 km in distance, the only part of the race, which can be seen from the stadium, is the start and finish, about 3 minutes in total. The remaining 15 minutes of the race can only be viewed on one of the long line of TV screens placed especially in front of the 100m stadium, accompanied by the commentator's voice thundering on the air.

Marshall Macluhan' s famous statement, "the medium is the message" (1964: 23), is very applicable to the growing phenomenon of camel racing in the Gulf. Television as the ultimate modern communication technology has indeed played a significant role in the evolution and popularization of this cultural sport. It has not only fashioned the nature and style of producing cultural messages related to camel racing, but has also shaped other supporting activities surrounding this sport.

Wide access to television has empowered people to "compress space and time" (Harvey 1989: 271) watching world events in ease and comfort. Unlike writing, televised messages are direct; they carry a sense of immediacy and "restore presence" of the events transmitted, and in this lies their great appeal. Cultural messages transmitted by television do not require elements of mediation specialized training leading to literacy between the producers and receivers (Williams 1983: 111). Because of this, television has enabled state agencies and other organizations involved in the production of camel heritage to overcome certain constraints usually associated with illiteracy. As most of those involved in the breeding and/or training of racing camels in the Arabian Gulf are still illiterate or barely literate, television production has an important effect.

On one of my visits to the encampment at the Al Wathba racetrack in the Abu Dhabi Emirate, I asked a Saudi to come and watch the races with me. He replied, "Why bother? It is all here in front of me. It is direct on the air. You can even get a better commentary here on television." He was one of the fortunate few to have pitched his tent close to the electricity mains supply, and as a result he had furnished his tent with modern conveniences: TV, refrigerator, and a fan. His statement reflects a common attitude among those involved in camel racing; indeed, it explains the absence of large crowds at the camel racing stadiums although the sport is tremendously popular, especially among the Bedu.

To facilitate this televised sport, a special road has been built alongside the racing track for the mobile television cameras, so that the entire race can be viewed. Various modern television techniques are also utilized to make such heritage races more attractive to make such heritage races more attractive to watch. For example, often the TV screen is split: one half displays the panoramic view of the race, the other shows the leading camels in close-up. In addition, the finale of the race is viewed from a height as well as the side.

Television documentaries and other event-related programs on cultural heritage, including camel racing, produce complex messages of multiple meanings and functions. They can be viewed as both instruments of state political legitimization and domination, and equally important, as means through which local cultural identity is revived. The cultural discourse used in these television heritage productions employs multiple forms, strategies, and styles in order to drive home to viewers numerous simultaneous messages. During the final camel races in April 1996 in Al Wathba in the Abu Dhabi Emirate, the commentator of a special program on the races expounded at length on the place and importance of camels and camel racing in present-day UAE society:

Shade, water, palm trees, and the camel are vocabularies which when joined together mean the life of the true Arab Bedu. They also mean heritage filled with glories. They mean noble deeds, high morals and fine qualities all of which have become features of the Arab man. They make up his identity, where our ancestors lived a life of desert hardship and scarcities. It was then inevitable that they migrated in search of these essentials for their own life and that of their animals. "Look for your friend before you look for your road" is a saying whose meaning is clearly expressed when we come to the camel, the best of friends.

The huge expanse of desert in the Arabian peninsula and other Arab lands imposed upon the Bedu specific harsh modes of life that required endurance, patience, and determination. In spite of life hardships, being faithful to one's homeland was the ultimate noble motive that led the Arabs to build their lives in the desert. In such life context the value of camels grew in the Arab's life to become equal to his honor, glory, and dignity. These are attributes of honor that the Arab is ready to pay for with his own life for their preservation. Camels were not only used for migrating across desert land; they provided a source of livelihood with their milk, wool, and meat. Most importantly, camels occupied a large domain in the history of Arab glories. Day after day the bond between the Arab man and his camel becomes stronger, and the camel's place and significance increases. Isn't the significance of the camel stated clearly in Allah's Great' Book, and in the Sunna of His Prophet as a testimony of the Creator's great miracles in His own creation? Also the camel is to be seen as concrete evidence of Allah's powers and his wonders in creation; and a motivation for men to reflect about Allah and His ultimate knowledge.

With the passage of time the camel was transformed from being only an instrument of transport and migration to an important pillar, a significant feature in our heritage and traditional Arab character. In historical, religious, and civilizational terms, camels can be associated in a long chain of pride and glories. Built on this belief and in appreciation for the precious heritage of the past His Highness Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the State, has formulated his goals and directives emphasizing the necessity for showing appreciation and respect for this heritage, and to encourage our nationals to practice the sport sibaqat al hejin (camel racing). Under the rulership of His Highness, President of the State, may Allah protect him, and due to his support of heritage, the value of al hejin is increasing steadily.

This type of media information is significant as it simultaneously encapsulates multiple knowledge discourses. It explains the adaptational bond between the Bedu and their camels. More significantly, it invokes heritage sentiments, cultural historical nostalgia, and other political and national ideological messages.

Return to Index

3. Organizational Development Aspects

Changes in the organizational aspects of the production of the races are the most evident and notable. They are heavily affected by the adoption of technological innovations and methods of television media information.

The systematic modem development of camel racing in the UAE started in the early 1980s. Those who were involved in the development of this sport throughout the Gulf found themselves in a difficult situation, as this was a new sport and there were few prior experiences on which they could draw. However, some organizational methods and rules in horse racing have been adopted or modified to suit camel races. For example, races are classified according to categories of breed, age, and distance. In their quest to develop camel racing and promote its popularity at home and beyond, people involved in this young-old sport had, as informants pointed out, to learn the hard way; learn by trial and error. They had to invent, adopt, and reassess their progress year after year. The accumulation of the last fifteen years of experience has led to the development of the sport according to an elaborate set of policies and rules that have now brought greater order, fairness, and standardization to this cultural heritage enterprise.

The realization of such a quest has been made possible, as the media frequently reminds one, "by the inspiration, guidance, and instructions of Shaikh Zayed, the President of the UAE, and his brothers, their excellencies, the members of the Supreme Federal Council, Rulers of the Emirates." In this context emerged the need to establish the Camel Racing Association (CRA) in the UAE on 25th October 1992. The goals of this association are to continue the development of this heritage sport by giving it institutionalized forms throughout the country, made up of seven emirates. Basically this has meant bringing standardization and uniformity in the organization and other aspects of racing.

Return to Index

The Racetracks

The building of modem racetracks (referred to by the locals as al markadh', lit. "running place"), is one of the most obvious developments of camel racing in the UAE. As noted earlier, these racetracks have stadiums ranging in their size and beauty , depending on the cities they neighbor. Most of them were built in the early 1980s. The most famous ones are Al Wathba, about 30 km southeast of Abu Dhabi City, Nad Al Shiba, 10 km south of Dubai, and Al Ain track in Al Maqam, 20 km west of the oasis city of Al Ain in the interior of the country. The lesser tracks include Al Samba and Al Madam in Sharjah Emirate, Al Siwan in Ras Al Khaimah, and Al Labsah in Umm Al Quwain. In addition, small racetracks are built in desert areas where large concentrations of Bedu involved in camel breeding live. These tracks, found particularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai Emirates, are used for training and local races, where buying and selling of the hejin take place.

The major tracks, like Al Wathba and Nad Al Shiba, are well constructed with attention to heritage-oriented aesthetical features. For example, Nad Al Shiba, built by the Dubai local government, is an integrated camel racing facility of the first order, stretching over 25 km2. It contains two tracks; the larger one, known locally as al doura al kabiera (the large circle), is of 10 km but can be shortened with specific openings and enclosures to 8 km. The smaller track is located inside the larger track, and again through the use of openings and enclosures it can accommodate races of 4, 5, or 6 km for younger camels.

The stadium, which faces the finishing line, is built in the shape of a large white tent perched on a green bill of immaculately tidy lush green lawns, swaying palm trees and flowering shrubs.

Eight flapping UAE flags on the spine on the tent give the whole structure a feel of poised beauty in flight. In functional terms the tracks are provided with all necessary services, personnel and equipment required for the six-month racing season. The stadium has a seating capacity of 1,000 with a VIP section in the centre. For the management of the races, the track is provided with a tower for TV cameras at the finishing line, a special tarmac track for two TV cars, an ambulance, and several microbuses which carry specialized personnel involved in the management of racing in each round (shoudh). The stadium is provided with TV sets in front of the seats, and sound amplifiers. Close to the starting line there is a large enclosure to keep camels waiting for the races. Adjacent to the tracks there is a police station, kitchen, toilets, a camel market of 56 shops specializing in food and accessories for camels, a mosque, a veterinary centre, medical and drug testing clinic, and a large area of one square mile primarily for the encampment of guest participants from neighboring Gulf countries during the final months of the races. There is also a special area for the display of about 150 luxury cars to be given as prizes at the end of the season, late March or early April. More than 50 men are employed to maintain the tracks and enclosures throughout the year. The CRA, Dubai Branch, hires them from a company called EO (Engineering Office), and in their gray uniforms the men, mainly from India and Pakistan, drive water trucks to sprinkle the tracks, drive tractors to harrow and level the sand, and act as gardeners, cleaners, and maintenance workers.

Return to Index

The Introduction of Different Races for Different Breeds of hejin

It is relevant to note that the lean, slim, and agile racing camels (al hejin) now seen on the racetracks are not a recent product, as the Bedu of Arabia have always bred fast camels. Given their desert pastoralist mode of life they did not need to possess many camels for transport as beasts of burden. Their main concern was breeding large numbers of fast riding camels that they used as mataya (mounts) in raiding and defense. This is in contrast to camel breeders in the Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan who needed heavily built camels primarily for transport and agricultural work.

The organizational innovation of introducing separate races for different breeds of camel has contributed greatly to the development of the races, as the specific categories of camel breed possess different physical qualities that affect their performance on the track. Racing camels have been divided into three categories, according to their physical type: a) the local breed, known as al mahaliyat (local ones) or ra'iyat al dar (mistresses of homeland), usually brown in colour, b) the Sudanese camels (al Sudaniyat), which are usually a little bigger, faster, and white in colour, and c) the interbreed (al muhajanat) of the first two.

Interbreeding has resulted, though, in the emerging problem of camel identification, and to ensure fairness in the races paternity testing is now carried out at the camel laboratory centre in Dubai. A laboratory analysis is made of the father's and the child's blood, and if the father is a Sudanese camel, then the child is also categorized as al Sudaniyat. Interbreed camels are identified by a metal tag inserted under the skin on the neck, and immediately before the races the camels are checked to confirm their muhajana (interbreed) identity. Since 1997 the Sudaniyat camels have not been allowed to participate in the races, and the intention is to ban this category of camels altogether, and confine racing to the local, interbreed, and occasionally Omaniyat (Omani camels).

Return to Index

The Introduction of Different Distances for Various Age-Groups

Camel races are now organized according to sex and age categories, as well as the different breeds. One of the responsibilities of the Camel Racing Association, through a special lijna (committee), is to ensure that only the appropriate camels run in each race category. Members of this committee are experienced camel breeders who usually rely on teeth extraction to determine the age of the camel. This move has introduced greater fairness to the races.

Table: Camel Categories

Arabic Local Names
Age in Years
Distance in km
Average Running Time (min/sec )
Haq
2-3
4
6.50
Leqai/Madrab
3-4
5
8.50
Yetha' (male and female)
4-5
7

8
13.00

14.30
Thanaya
Thanaya abkar (females)
Thanaya je'dan (males)
5-6
8

8
14.00

14.20
Hool
Thulel (females)
Zumool (males)
over 6
10

10
17.00

17.30

The table of camel categories shows the Arabic local names of the various categories of camels divided by sex and age, the distance specified for the races, and average running time.

Camels can continue racing until they are 12 to 14 years of age; then they retire to the breeding farms. It is of relevance to note that just over 90% of the racing camels are female. Usually only one in every 10 races is for male camels; often the second round of the races is given to males. The male races are further subdivided into two categories: khasaya (castrated) and ghair khasaya (uncastrated); the latter represents the majority of races. There are several reasons why al thulel (female camels) are dominant in the races; first, most young male camels are slaughtered by the Bedu for social celebrations, such as weddings. Only a few of the male camels are spared, primarily for reproductive purposes. Secondly, female camels are usually faster; by an average of 30 seconds in the race, and thirdly, the females are more gentle and easier to handle. The races usually take place during the winter, which coincides with the rutting season for camels. This makes the uncastrated males quite temperamental and more difficult to control during training and at the races.

Return to Index

Organization of Races According to Types of Owners

Races are also organized according to the social categories of owners, a strategy aimed at providing greater diversity and opportunities for competing camels. Since racing camels owned by the ruling shaikhs in the various emirates are of the best stock, they have high chances of winning every event that would be devastating to the ordinary Bedu breeders. Thus there are three types of ash wadh (rounds): a) races specified for al shuyoukh (shaikhs); b) races for al shuyoukh and al qaba'il (tribes), also known as a'am (general races); and c) races specified for 'abna' al qaba'il (sons of the tribes), also referred to as lil jama'a (the tribal groups).

Usually hejin al shuyoukh are run in the morning (7:30-10:00 a.m.), and races start early so as to make maximum use of the fresh hours of the day. Most of the races specified for the Bedu take place in the afternoon (2:30-5:00 p.m.). These races are often watched by the camel breeders for the shaikhs, who come to identify particularly good racing camels, and may purchase them for the shaikhs' camel farms.

Return to Index

Feeding and Management

For the last twelve years strict feeding programs have been introduced for the overall welfare and "running fair" of the racing camels. Nutritionists have been employed from the Netherlands, and a feedmill has been in operation for many years with a British manager. All feed except alflafa (locally called al jat or barseem) is imported, and mixed in the feedmill. According to specialists at the Dubai Veterinary Laboratory, racing camels nowadays have a well-balanced diet, a high-energy feed consisting of oats and barley, with vitamin supplements and trace elements added to the feed. While camels are not true ruminants, they do nonetheless ruminate and need a lot of fiber. During the racing season, camels are put on a special feed and are not allowed to roam and forage in the desert.

On the other hand, breeding camels are allowed to feed in the desert, with additional special feed. Usually a baby camel is taken away from its mother when it is between 13 to 16 months old, and is then put on a race-training program. This will produce a fast camel at the age of 3 years, when it is allowed to enter the races. The mother can give birth to another calf after about 13 months.

The steady advances in camel health care are reflected by the growth of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, which was established in 1986 primarily for the purpose of experimental research into reproduction of better breeds of racing camels, control of camel diseases, and to ensure the general welfare of the animals. The centre started with 3 employees, but by 1997 it had grown to 25 specialists, including 5 biochemists and 20 scientific assistants. Various other institutions are associated with the laboratory, including clinics for camels, horses, and falcons, and reproduction and fertility laboratories. The ruling family of Dubai alone employ 10 veterinarians recruited from Pakistan in their special camel clinics, and these bring camel disease cases and specimens to the laboratory.

According to Dr. Ulrich Wernery, a German microbiologist who joined the center as its director in 1987, the work of the center has helped in eradicating and controlling many camel diseases. Consequently the health of camels has improved steadily, not only in the UAE but in Somalia, Sudan, and Pakistan, and currently the center is proposing the establishment of a veterinary school in the UAE. The center examines every year 15,000 camels owned by the Dubai shaikhs and, to a lesser extent, the Bedu camel breeders. Every camel has a health check once a year, some more frequently. The purpose of this is to chart the running performance, and especially the relative ratio of red blood corpuscles in the blood. One of the main objectives of the center is to help in the production of faster racing camels, and over the last three years the average winning time of a 10 km race has been reduced by two minutes.

The production of faster racing camels is not confined to producing good genes and maintaining high quality health care for these lean beasts of the desert. Equally important is their training for the track, their feeding, and other aspects of their management. An elaborate organizational hierarchy has emerged over the last two decades, reflecting the new dynamics generated by oil wealth and the interplay of local and global forces and methods in camel care and training. At the top of the hierarchy reside the owners of the camels, notably the ruling shaikhs of the various emirates. They own the finest and largest number of racing camels, and as the media states, it is their vision, financial support, love, and attachment to camels, policies, guidance, and inspiration to develop the races that have given rise to the establishment of the CRA in the UAE and the phenomenon of heritage revival at large.

Camel Racing Association heirarchy

In hierarchical terms, next to the shaikhly owners there are a small number of wealthy merchant families who own camels, particularly in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. Their interest in racing camels is motivated by three main reasons: for commercial purposes, in terms of buying and selling camels; the attainment of prestige; and emulating the ruling families in heritage revival. Thus they come to share in social honor and the symbolic capital that is manufactured through the modem media. The Bedu tribesmen's position as owners of racing camels came about because of the collapse of traditional camel herding and camel transport economy, and their capacity to shift their traditional knowledge and skills to the breeding of racing camels in the context of the new oil economy. Many of these owners possess only a few camels, and equally important, they rely on the generosity of the shaikhs to employ them as trainers of the shaikhs' camels. Further notes on ownership will be raised in more detail under the economico-political aspects of racing.

The CRA as a managerial body is involved in all aspects of camel racing throughout the season; the larger umbrella organization embodies smaller branches in each of the emirates. It also mobilizes various committees whose supervision is essential for well-controlled, orderly, and fair races that are also colorful, exciting, and enjoyable to watch.

The Association's duties go beyond formulating rules necessary for greater development of the races, and include a) preparing the racetracks and ensuring they are well-equipped; b) ensuring equal training and participation opportunities for all camel owners (all interested citizens have a right to participate); c) making a detailed schedule for the hundreds of races each season, culminating in the finals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the winners presented with prestigious trophies donated by the leading shaikhs; d) selection of referees and judges for the races; e) contacting commercial and other establishments for donations of attractive prizes (4-wheel drive luxury vehicles, BMWs, etc.); and f) ensuring wide press coverage of racing events.

At the races themselves numerous lijan (committees) can be seen at work. There is, for example, a committee to identify and control specific camel age and breed categories, which issue identification markers for the races. There is also lijnat al ta'rief, the committee to identify the owners of running camels, who accompany the TV commentator round the racetrack to give information on the leading camels. Their work is made easier nowadays as the larger camel stables have adopted specific colors for the vest of the rakbi (jockey). This strategy has been generalized across the Gulf Arab countries, as racing camels from different countries participate in many of the large races, which are timed to allow racing enthusiasts to truck camels and trainers from one country to the next (mainly UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman).

There are also lijan to watch the start and finish lines. The finishing line committee is responsible for identifying the first ten racing camels for each race, and can resort to televised images in cases of dispute. The winners receive a card that is immediately taken to a mobile office, set up in a car, where a paper is signed and stamped. This is then taken to the "Prize Awarding Committee," basically a treasurer and an accountant, who sit at two small desks and distribute cash prizes varying in value according to the race positions achieved. The owners of the first three camels, however, do not receive prizes immediately. These camels are taken to a clinic to be tested for the use of drugs, and the owners have to wait a day or two for the results. Any use of energizing drugs will not only disqualify a camel, but entail loss of face and personal integrity for the owner. At the larger races, however, the first three camels do receive immediate honorary treatment; their heads are decorated with saffron imported from Syria, and they are paraded in front of the stadium for a few minutes, so that VIPs and others have a full view of their stature against the background of manicured lush green lawns.

There is also a medical committee, consisting of paramedics who accompany the racing camels in their ambulance. If any rakbi looks sick, as sometimes the boys suffer from race nausea, then the ambulance staff will stop him and relieve him and the camel from the exhaustion of the long race.

The ruling shaikh's gesture of hospitality to all those participating in the races expresses itself through the work of the lijnat al dheyafa, the hospitality committee. The staff are involved in distributing foodstuffs, as gifts from the shaikh, to all the breeders, trainers, and caretakers of racing camels, who usually camp with the camels in special designated areas near the racetracks, or al race, as it has been arabized and frequently referred to by the Bedu. These food gifts include lambs, sacks of rice, tea, sugar, coffee, cardamom, cheese, condensed milk, etc. Participants coming from outside the emirates are welcomed with added attention and generosity.

Return to Index

The Training of Racing Camels

Racing camel trainers occupy an important position in the management structure of camel racing outside the activities supervised and/or performed by committees of the Camel Racing Association. As with breeding, training is still the domain of the Bedu. The trainers are known locally as al mudhamer (literally the person who makes the camel lean and fit), and come from desert camel-based families where traditional knowledge and love for racing camels is in the air around them. The mudhamer's personal success in training winning camels is usually the road to his fame, as he then becomes well known and may be approached by the shaikhs to train their camels. Since training plays an important role in giving the camel greater opportunities for winning, good trainers can achieve both fame and fortune in the racing camel world of oil rich Arabia. Top trainers are a scarce commodity and can actually fetch high prices for their expertise and skills.

There are two types of camel training. The first type is referred to locally as al adab, which means proper behavior, or al ta'ah (obedience) as the Sudanese trainers call it. This involves breaking in the young camel when it is about 13-14 months old; the process takes about 1 to 3 months.

It involves attaching the young camel by rope to an old quiet well-seasoned camel known as al qeliesa, to act as a guide and companion in the training process. The young camel is trained to wear the al khidham, the rope fixed around the head to control the camel's movements, and the al shidad, the soft blanket saddle. It becomes accustomed to being mounted by a young rider, and most importantly, it gets trained to run on the track. One of the common sights on al mirkadh (the racing track) at non-racing times are young, often teenage, Balochi, Sudanese, and Somali trainers riding their qeliesa camels with their sticks in hand, each leading two to four young camels that in turn have small rakbiya (plural of rakbi) perched on their backs. This training is done frequently until the camel acquires the running aptitude so that she can negotiate the al mirkadh with ease and confidence. When the camel is three years old, she graduates to enter the al mirkadh as a member of al liqaya (the three year old crop of racing camels).

It should be noted here that the qeliesa riders-cum-trainers were often a few years back small rakbiya riding in the heat of serious races. However, their fast body growth and increased weight have forced them to graduate from the backs of the lean athletic camels to the relatively heavy and quiet qeliesa, which themselves have been forced to retire from the track-and-field athletic business. While sitting in Nad al Shiba camel stadium in Dubai I turned to Sudanese boy who sat next to me. Guessing that he is involved in the camel business, I asked him, "What do you do?" "I am a trainer," he answered half shyly. Then he explained that only three years ago he was a rakbi, but now he breaks in camels and helps in training them on al mirkadh. His father and two uncles also work in the camel business. Apparently over the last fifteen years the northern central region of Sudan (Um Delaiq) has been exporting many camel experts, mostly from the camel tribes of al Badaheen, al Kowahla, and al Hawara. Similarly the Rashayda tribe in the Kasala region of Sudan has been sending camel boys of all ages to the UAE as well as other oil rich Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.

The second and more important type of training is called al tadhmeer, which is aimed at achieving high athletic fitness for racing camels. The term al tadhmeer literally means "making the camels slender and fit." The trainers in charge of the process are locally known as al mudhamer, and are mostly Bedu. There are those who got into the profession in a de facto manner as they began breeding their own pure pedigrees of racing hejin, and subsequently got involved in training them to enter races when the racing hejin phenomenon started with force in the early 1980s. However, some Bedu trainers were hired as mudhamers for the training of racing camels bought by the shaikhs. There is, however, a strong link between the two, as often a shaikh upon buying few camels from a Bedu breeder decides that the camels should stay with him as their caretaker and trainer, as he is the best person to know and care for the camels. Then through the shaikh's private office the mudhamer gets allocated the required finances to establish an 'azba (camel farm). This means that he gets a set monthly salary, wages for laborers, a four-wheel drive car, a mobile phone, radio, water tank truck, petrol expenses, necessary fodder, and so on. Most mudhamers I talked to repeated that they do it not only to gain an income but also because they love to do it. They relate to it both as a job and a hobby, and in this lies their dedication and total engagement to the hejin. In fact, many of them have succeeded in attracting their adult sons who were doing their university studies into this competitive brave new world of camels.

There is more or less a uniform camel training pattern followed by al mudhamers. However, when talking to them they present themselves as training experts who are different from others in some variation, strategy, or method. The training program usually begins early in July for the weaker camels, while stronger ones are put on the training regime around late August. The program begins with al tasrieh, taking the camels out for walking in the desert early in the morning. Initially the al tasrieh distance is around 20 km; in the training context al tasrieh means to let camels roam and forage while at the same time they are guided to do some serious walking. The camels are brought back to the 'azba before the scorching midday heat. Upon their return they get fed al jat (alfalfa) and barley and are given water. Then they rest in al mersagh (the shaded shelter) until around 3 o'clock when they are given water and a large handful of dates.

At the beginning of October the training and feeding change in several ways. Al tasrieh (sometimes called al minshar) walking distance is increased to 40 km a day. Food and water are carried out to the camels in al minshar (the roaming pasture land). They return to al mersagh between 4 and 6 0' clock in the afternoon for their dinner. The camel eats two qlala (large bunches) of al jat daily. About two months before the races some of the camels are selected by their trainer as having a good opportunity to perform well, and these are given special feed that includes minerals, milk, and honey in measured quantities. They also receive greater attention, not only in terms of more frequent medical checkups but also in terms of their general welfare and health care against insects, dirt, and changing weather elements. The al tasrieh process usually consists of 3 to 5 hours purpose-oriented walking daily, with the aim of making the camel lose fat, and become well trimmed and fit.

Various workers are employed in the camel 'az ba under the supervision of the Bedu mudhamer, and each is assigned specific tasks to perform daily. For example, an 'azba with ten racing camels requires three to four workers. One will be involved in taking the camels out for al tasrieh (walking and foraging), while the second will be responsible for preparing fodder and water. A third may be assigned the task of keeping the camels clean and groomed. In addition, the rakbi boys usually will be seen around as helpers in miscellaneous tasks. While they are actually hired as camel jockeys they also get general training as caretakers of camels under the supervision of their father or male relative. Sometimes a rakbi will work and live under the wing of a compassionate mudhamer who more or less adopts the young boy and sees him grow up to become a young camel trainer by the time he is 15 years old. Most of the hired laborers, including tile young trainers, come from neighboring poor countries like Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Mauritania, and also Oman. This category of laborers represents the least paid and lowest stratum within the hierarchical pecking order of this camel cultural industry. Their monthly wage averages around DR. 600-800 (U.S.$180-220).

In addition to the regular and systematic al tasrieh, which is aimed at giving the camel general leanness and fitness, comes running training called al tajheem, which usually begins in early November. While some al tajheem exercises are done on small local rings, the serious training is conducted on the major racetracks. The long period of preliminary races, extending from October to the end of January, is arranged in such a way that they take place alternatively every second week. This allows camel owners and trainers to bring their camel athletes to exercise on the track. At the end of morning and afternoon racing sessions hundreds of camels can be seen entering al doura, the ring, for al tajheem practice. The process is controlled in that only five to ten camels are allowed to start at a given time to avoid overcrowding and injuries.

The distance is not fixed but decided upon by the trainer, according to the distance the camel is expected to run in actual races and the trainer's own plans and training program.

The goal of al tajheem is to get the camel used to running over specified distances. During the al tajheem period the quality of the camel's diet improves radically. Most trainers offer their fine athletes additional rich nourishing foods like dates, barley, cow's and goat's milk which is mixed with very expensive natural local honey ($150-200 per kilo), purified butter and local thick pancakes (al qures). Intake of such rich food compensates for the tremendous energy lost during al tajheem training.

Racing camels also undergo a further training process called al tahfeez, literally meaning "to prod the camel to empty her bowels." This usually takes place two days before the race. The camels are then covered with specially tailored blankets, and led away to the camp where they are washed. They get a little water and alight meal, are covered again, and then their mouths are covered with a special hood to prevent them from eating further. The following day they spend in total rest and fasting in preparation for their participation in the races.

It is worth noting here that good mudhamers become famous throughout the land primarily because of televised media, as their names are always being mentioned by TV commentators during the big races. In fact, the camel rakbi' s uniform, in addition to the colors of the owner, now carries a special stripe of a particular colour to identify a specific mudhamer, since each of the shaikhs employs dozens of mudhamers

One Sudanese man in his early twenties from the al Rashayda tribe told me the story of how' he and his older brother were recruited along with many others as camel rakbiya in 1982:

My brother and I were in primary school, he was in the fifth year while I was in the second year. We were taken from our village and spent about 15 days in Khartoum. We were about 15 boys, and when we arrived at Abu Dhabi airport we were taken away in small vans to Zayed City in the desert, west of Abu Dhabi City. The men in charge of me sent me to school for one year. The beginning of my experience as a camel rider was difficult and very tiring. Sometimes I felt sick and I used to stop the camel. However, I soon learnt the skills of camel riding and became quite good at it. My brother was then taken somewhere else, to another camel 'alba. For a while I didn't know exactly where he was. After four years I quit my 'alba and ran back to the 'azba where I was initially and officially assigned. I moved to work in different camel farms and finally came to see some of our relatives in the Al Ain region. Then we were both fortunate to get hired by camel people in Al Ain. Now I have gained experience and intuition about camels over the last 16 years, and most camels I nominate as winners usually win.

The two brothers and some of their Rashayda relatives are now involved with other Sudanese camel people in free-lance trading in camels. I was informed by many Sudanese informants that the monthly salaries of the rakbiya used to be far better than the current low salaries. Rakbi used to earn between 1200-1300 DH, but now for Arab boys the monthly wages are 800 DH. The recruitment of many rakbiya from Bangladesh, Somalia, and Pakistan have led to the lowering of wages earned by such young gallant riders to 500-800 DH per month (around $150-200).

In addition to the material and moral support of the ruling shaikhs, the rapid evolution of camel racing in the UAE is in part due to the continuing work and dedication of the CRA. I will note here only a few of the rules and regulations set up recently by the CRA to indicate both the wide scope and coverage of small details which have in their totality advanced an evolving cultural sport. As noted earlier, the CRA' s rules cover a wide range of organizational aspects of the races. There are rules specifying racing dates, camel categories, and distances. For example, rules written in 1993 state that camel races shall start in all racing tracks in the UAE from the first of September every year. The rules then specify the names of camel categories and distances throughout the season, which usually ends in late March or early April. "Races shall be run once or twice every month on Thursdays and Fridays in accordance with the program set for this purpose. Other races may be run on national or special occasions or during official festivals. Two or more special races with large cash prizes shall be run annually; such races shall be held during the racing season and under the supervision of the Camel Racing Association. These races shall be called the Zayed Grand Cash Prize Races, and dates, value of cash prizes, and programs of these races shall be determined in due course."

The rules state that the number of camels participating in each round of the race shall be between 25 and 30 camels. "Camels which their owners wish to participate in the races shall be registered in order to distribute them according to the number of rounds. Registration shall be made serially and on 'first come first served' basis four days in advance of the fixed date for the race." On young camels it states, "Young camels under the age of al yetha' shall be prohibited from participating in the races." On the Sudaniyat category of camels it states that "Two rounds only in each race shall be allocated to the Sudaniyat camels. One round for the shaikhs, combining hoof and zumool, and one round to tribesmen." With regard to camels given by the shaikhs to tribesmen it is noted "a) Camels given as a gift from their excellencies the shaikhs to tribesmen shall be identified and b) such camels shall be named, registered, photographed, and branded for identification as the property of (x) person."

The CRA also made regulations in 1993 on the camel jockeys: "a) small children are not allowed as camel jockeys; b) the jockey's weight should be similar to the international standards of the horse jockeys and their weight shall not be less than 45 kg; c) the jockey shall be medically examined to ensure his fitness; d) the jockey has to wear the protection helmet; e) each jockey shall be given an identity card which is issued in accordance with the conditions acceptable and approved in all emirates and racetracks; f) persons who breach these specific regulations set in respect of the jockey as indicated above will not be allowed to participate in the races of the season."5

On dharb al hejin (camel beating) the rules clarify "a) beating camels is not allowed at the start of the race until the distance of 1.5 km is reached; b) in accordance with principles of animal welfare, beating racing camels should be light and directed to alert and to prod the camel for greater speed; c) branding the jockey's stick around is not allowed as this may cause injury to others on the track."

In a similar fashion one finds numerous detailed rules on the number and identities of cars running inside the ring parallel to the racing camels, rules on control or prevention of certain camel types which disturb the smooth running of the races and even rules on the order and proper quiet behavior of spectators in the stadium.

It should be noted, however, that some of these rules are subject to modification. For example, the Sudaniyat camels and their like, called al harayer, have been banned since the 1997 season from participating in the races. In accordance with the directives of His Highness the President of the UAE, Shaikh Zayed, a new rule was formulated in May 1996 separating racing camels into two categories: al muhajanat (interbreed) and al mahaliyat (the local thoroughbreds). This is aimed at giving the local purebred camels a greater chance of winning as the types and thus the number of competitive camels are narrowed down. The rules have also been changed with regard to the jockey's weight. Although the CRA formulated a rule in January 1993 that his weight should not be less than 45 kg, only six months later it was voiced by the Bedu involved in the races that this rule was not realistically suitable. As a result, the CRA' s regulation on the issue of jockey's weight was changed to "not less than 35 kg." One can see small boys perched like birds on the top of these slender camels.

It was argued by the camel experts that the lightweight jockey is very important in camel racing. This is not only to achieve greater speed, but it also relates to the fact that camels do not mature before six years. This is why the 10 km races are confined to camels that are six years old and more. Repeatedly putting a heavier adult jockey on young racing camels may damage the camel's spine. Unlike the horse, it is not possible to put stirrups on the camel's back so that the jockey can stand and thus distribute his weight on the whole body frame of the camel.

Additional organizational details and rules are added every year during the final races. In the program booklet distributed at the Dubai camel racing finals in February 1998, there are. the following notes on the first page from the organization committee: "The organization committee will give medical tests (check on the use of drugs) to the camels winning the first three positions. We request the co-operation from every one. The Sudaniyat camels are strictly not allowed to participate with the local breed camels. Warning: it has been noted lately that some camel owners and mudhamers are providing their jockeys with an apparatus discharging electric shocks to be applied on camels to induce greater speed. The committee forbids the use of such devices. Those found possessing it in the races will be disqualified and the apparatus will be confiscated."6

Return to Index

4. The Economico-Political Aspects

The detailed description of the organizational aspects of camel racing in the UAE has shed light on the scope and significance of the economic dimension of this whole national cultural industry, and therefore my notes on economic aspects will be brief. As stated earlier, the emergence of this camel phenomenon needs to be understood within the broad context of the oil economy and the building of the modern nation-state that has generated multiple transformations in the society at large.

During the initial phase of the oil boom traditional economic activities collapsed relatively quickly. Traditional pastoralism, on which the camels totally depended, was not an exception. Camels were margina1ized, as old Bedu pastoralists were attracted to easier jobs, better salaries, and a more comfortable existence in towns or newly built village communities. However, they remained feeling ill at ease in the rapidly changing oil world. In the mid-seventies their views and sentiments about the increasing loss of their camels, which represented their traditional wealth and repertoire of traditional skills, symbols, and meanings, were voiced to their ruling shaikhs. In one television interview with Shaikh Zayed he stated his reply to his complaining camel tribesmen, "Give us some time to think of ways and approaches to do something about this deteriorating camel situation." Informants love to quote Shaikh Zayed saying to his Bedu tribesmen, "Look after your camels well. A day will come when they will be worth millions." While this statement was put in a rather prophetic form, it is not now too far from reality. Shaikh Zayed in a 1997 TV program gave many reasons for the increasing attention to camels. One of them was the statement that " . . . we are in debt to camels. Therefore we are obliged to protect them and those who grew up with them. Protecting the camels (al hejin) means providing material benefits and interests for their owners."

The Canadian anthropologist Louise Sweet in a 1970 article explained that camel raiding among the North Arabian Bedouins was essentially "a mechanism of ecological adaptation." Bedouin groups when hungry and in need raided each other on the backs of their agile hejin to capture wealth; thus she viewed raiding as a suitable strategy, a functionally adaptive mechanism within the context of the constantly changing desert ecology. Raiding was, in economic tenI1S, a strategy, a war sport in order to keep camel wealth circulating among groups which often competed and warred with each other over scarce desert resources. Transferring this theoretical notion to viewing camels racing with and against each other within the new context of the oil economy is quite attractive. It offers a plausible explanation to see these thousands of camels racing against each other on the track as a way of capturing some of the new and abundant oil wealth. As some Bedu say, "Once you get into that camel ring you cannot get out of it."7

It is understandable why it becomes difficult to get away from such a "ring," as the stakes are quite large. In economic terms, the racing ring becomes the field through which, as far as camel breeders are concerned, one can get to the lavish and abundant bounty of the oil state. During the long racing season the ring and the multiple little and not-so-little economic fields which grow around it offer rich pasture land, so to speak, where running camels and their owners can forage in the new terrain of oil ecology which is now governed by rules and methods of its own.

This kind of analytical explanation becomes more plausible when we recall the specifics of the political economy of the oil state (dawlat al naft) in the Gulf. As a type of polity and governance the oil state is characterized by having a hereditary shaikhly ruling family in control of both power and executive authority of a growing state structure. The right of rule of the shaikhly dynastic families, who are linked to notable tribal origins, is still partly legitimized by shared beliefs in old values and political traditions. The state controls and manages both the production and marketing of oil. Therefore, because of this privileged role and through the executive power in the hands of its shaikhs or emirs, the state controls "the means of allocation" of wealth in society (Ismail 1982). As a result the state is given a uniquely powerful role in society; it is the largest and most powerful employer. In the UAE over 95% of all employed nationals work in the state public sector (Al Faris 1996).

As an embodiment of political society, the oil state nowadays dominates "civil society" in exaggerated form (Khalaf and Hammoud 1988: 351). The fact that the state relies primarily on autonomous sources of income (oil revenues) means that it has become, in economic terms, disarticulated from its underlying population. This emergent structural economic disarticulation between the state and its population is not mirrored in other areas of socioeconomic life. The distribution of oil wealth has in a sense helped the state to come closer to its small communities. This has been achieved through the ruler's economic capacity and commitment to modernize state and society. Modernization has meant that the state became primarily engaged in the distribution of oil wealth among its very small population. This has been achieved through four main channels: a) modernizing state political infrastruture, that is, building state departments and agencies; b) building extensive public works and myriad social welfare institutions which provide free welfare services and provisions; c) an open-door policy for employing its citizens within the still burgeoning state and welfare institutions; and d) offering extensive economic help to nationals to start their own small businesses which they manage while still maintaining their public jobs.

In view of the above, it is not surprising that this emerging type of welfare state, personified by the ruling shaikhly dynasties, has produced in the eyes of its underlying small population an image of a paternalistic, all-omnipotent, all-providing, all-generous giving father. In economico-political terms we can therefore understand why the Bedu camel breeders, when talking about their present conditions, raise their hands and tongues in praise to Allah and their shaikhs. The phenomenon of heritage revival, such as the building and continuous modernization of camel racetracks, becomes in itself an avenue for distributing wealth among the camel people and far beyond. This same economic process can be seen in the revival of other traditional economic activities, like the building of old traditional pearling boats, sailing boat races, pearl diving, the construction of several heritage villages, and so forth.

The significant point that needs to be noted here is that the role of camels within the new context of the oil state has been transformed, on the surface at least, from the realm of economy to that of culture. Having said that, we should immediately reaffirm that the production of camel racing as a cultural sport has many economic underpinnings. The Bedu are fully aware of the importance of these economic dynamics which support the reproduction of camel races as cultural festive spectacles, and which manifest themselves ill numerous areas.

Return to Index

Salaries and Wages

The dynastic shaikhly ruling families in the emirates, like Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and Al Maktoum of Dubai, are quite large, and most members are involved now in owning fine racing camels that they entrust to Bedu camel breeders as their trainers. According to informed sources, it is estimated that the three senior brothers of Al Maktoum family own around 15,000 camels, and around one third of this number is used for breeding racing camels. Shaikh Mohammed alone has more than 30 trainers. We can estimate the large numbers of Bedu mudhamers employed by them, particularly when it is known that camel farms range in size from 6 to 100 camels, some being even larger. It should be remembered that the shaikhly ruling families are quite large. Among them the ownership of fine racing camels has indeed become a contagious and popular socio-cultural activity.

Shaikh Zayed, President of the UAE, and his eldest son, Shaikh Khalifa have both established scientific centers for breeding racing camels on the outskirts of Al Ain City. Several camel specialists, immunologists, and laboratory research assistants have been recruited from places as far away as Australia to staff these centers, which are equipped with elaborate technologies for training camels in gymnasium-like settings that include a camel swimming pool. The financial management of Shaikh Zayed's and Shaikh Khalifa's camel farms is done through a special department known as Al Da'era Al Khassa, The Private Department of His Highness The President of the State and HRH, The Crown Prince. It is a large 2-floored building located in Al Ain City, and has around 100 employees who manage the monthly expenditure of 25 million dirhams (U.S.$6.2 million). This money is spent not only on camel farms but also on agricultural farms and palaces as well as their private guards, known locally as al medharzeya. The mudhamers in the shaikhs' camel farms receive around DH 10,000 as a monthly salary, which is adequate to support the large families usually still found among Bedu tribesmen. Many of them have supplementary income derived from small commercial enterprises, and some breed racing camels of their own for both Facing and/or selling in the market for the highest offer. The mudhamer is given a four-wheel drive car, a water tank truck, a mobile phone, and a walkie-talkie radio that he uses to give instructions to the jockey during serious races. The jockey wears his strapped on his chest under his jockey jacket. He only receives messages and cannot talk back to his mudhamer.

The economic role the shaikhs have played in the development of the camel phenomenon is remarkable indeed, and fits in with the larger economic and development policies of the state that are aimed at improving the material life conditions of the Bedu and oasis farming communities in the country. Cordes and Scholz (1982) have noted that the state has four major goals in supporting farming and animal production including camels. These are: a) to encourage the Bedu to gradually change to new settled economic activities, b) to help in meeting the country's need for meat and dairy products, c) to maintain a secure source of income for the Bedu, and d) to limit migration from rural areas to the cities. In fact the state in this regard has been very generous in its material, practical, and ideological support for the realization of such goals. In return, as expected, the state, personified by the ruling shaikhs, is reaping wide political support and continuous praise and glorification.

In addition to the shaikhs, there are also some wealthy merchant families who are involved in breeding racing camels, and some tribesmen raise their own racing camels and hire shepherds and laborers from foreign lands to do the manual tasks on the farm.

Return to Index

Selling and Buying Racing Camels

The main incentive for the Bedu to breed and train camels for the races hinges on the prospect of selling winning camels for very high prices, sometimes fetching several million dirhams each. Camels that have proven records of being among the first ten positions always fetch high prices. It is the shaikhs and some wealthy merchants with economic power who affect the scale of camel prizes. Businessmen are described as the big speculators in the stocks and shares of racing camels, driven by search for greater profits, compared with the Bedu who are actually involved in it because it is their livelihood and simultaneous source of cultural satisfaction and pleasure.

As the racing season intensifies during the cool months of February and March, another type of camel market springs up along the margins of the racetracks. Camel owners and traders bring large bulky camels known as al mejaheen or al hezami, used for meat, milk, and transport. Usually trade in this type of camel is confined to an assigned area provided by the authorities of the racetrack. Some of these huge beasts of burden are trucked in from faraway places like Oman and Saudi Arabia. The prices these camels fetch are usually only a fraction of what the fine breeds of racing camels can get. One also can see traders of lesser means who come from Sudan, Oman, or Somalia. Some of them worked many years as camel shepherds and trainers with the local Bedu and finally opted to work on their own in small groups as mobile freelancing sellers and buyers of hejin.

Return to Index

Camel Markets

These are specialized camel shopping souks that come alive during the long racing season. Three hundred meters away from the Dubai racetrack there is a large camel shopping mall with 56 shops. It was built ten years ago by Shaikh Hamdan of the Maktoum family, and thus it became known among locals as Souk Al Shaikh Hamdan. The shop's rent is deliberately kept low at DH 2,000 per year (around U.S.$500). It is now administered by the Dubai Municipality that has kept the same rent. A walk in the souk is a delightful experience with shopkeepers and shoppers from all comers of the globe. Most of the shopkeepers are from Pakistan or Afghanistan (Balochis and Patans) who look quite impressive with their fine beards and large turbans. Some also are from India and Bangladesh, and you can meet date salesmen from Al Ahwaz in southwest of Iran and hay trucks from Al Qaseim in northern Saudi Arabia. The shops in the souk sell camel medicines, foods, and various types of camel accessories. Huge amounts of al jat (alfalfa) are sold by Pakistani vendors operating under a big shaded area in the middle of the rectangular shape souk. This in turn keeps agricultural farms happy as there is always a high demand for their grass. Mobile goat and lamb sellers in the pickup trucks also find ground for themselves on the periphery of the souk. It even has a few shops for a tailor, a laundry, a restaurant, and video shop selling reproductions of the big races for 100 DH each. Some of these shops operate inside like a traditional cottage industry. You can see the Balochi shopkeepers weaving, sewing, or braiding the special camel robes and decorative pieces while waiting for customers to pop in. Some of them coming from the depths of Afghanistan live like squatters under carton boxes and plastic sheets adjacent to the racetrack of Al Ain in the depth of the desert interior.

The Dubai camel souk is one of the very few places where an expatriate worker can rent a shop without a national kafeel (sponsor). The vibrant commercial traffic of the souk subsides dramatically with the ending of the final races at the beginning of April. Therefore, many of the Asian shopkeepers prefer to return home for a long spring-summer holiday. Similarly, the business of trucking camels from one emirate to another, or from one Gulf country to another, is very profitable throughout the winter season and early spring.

Return to Index

Marketing and Advertising

During the final races in Dubai and Abu Dhabi it is evident how the commercial companies owned by leading merchant families make their presence glitter in the thick of racetrack events while utilizing modem advertising and promotion strategies. The modem market represented by the local global companies contribute to the success and development of the races by giving away luxury cars as prizes, to be awarded to winning camels in the many rounds of the final races.

The sight of 100 or more fine European and Japanese cars -- BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol Super Safaris, etc -- shining under the sun is a tantalizing view, enticing the desires of Bedu camel breeders and trainers. For them winning a car is not capturing an expensive prize but the prospective value of their camel multiplies several times. "She won a car" has become one of the yardsticks through which the superior quality of a racing camel can be confirmed. The al namous (social honor and prestige) obtained in the process is obviously the symbolic crowning that goes with the car, which both shaikh and tribesman celebrate with joy and excitement.

The scene of racing camels spinning in Al Wathba racetrack in Abu Dhabi Emirate is mirrored by a luxury car draped with the name of the donating company spinning on its own large electric tray adjacent to the finish line. Not too far from this first prize can be seen huge mural like portraits of the seven rulers of the seven emirates, with President Shaikh Zayed in the centre. This scene represent a perfect fusion of the local and global forces involved, with the racing camels representing the traditional and local while the car represents the modem and global, reflecting the complexity of the enterprise of reinventing tradition and reproducing culture. It also tells us something about the dynamics of traditions in changing societies.

Modem market and cultural traditions are evident in the context of camel racing which appears of mutual benefit and support, in which the sales and popularity of four-wheel drive farm work pickup trucks and four-wheel drive luxury cruisers are positively affected by this passionate revival of racing camels. Simultaneously, however, the effect of market global forces on this cultural sport has, in a sense, commoditized a cultural tradition. Some informants view modem camel racing as not having the real old authentic style and fun. It has become captive to too many market and money concerns, as well as too much media awareness. One informant noted, "It is now perhaps not any different from powerboat racing."

Camel racing has become one of the attractions for European tourists coming to spend winter holidays in the delightful mild UAE winter. Most of Dubai's five-star hotels have camel racing on their guided tours for guests; in fact some run special buses bringing large numbers of German, Swiss, and English tourists to see this exotic authentic culture on the run. The expanding tourist and hotel industry in the emirates, particularly in Dubai, has brought about an interesting cultural irony where global international chain hotels advertise camel safaris to their guests. "Come ride the real Arabia."8 One, indeed, wonders how real and authentic this Arabia is when it is produced by global institutions of commercial hospitality as a commodity for visiting consumers. The commoditization of camel culture within global market forces transforms real camel "folklore" into constructed "folklure."

The state has played a major role in supporting camel racing as one area in the revival and preservation of al turath al sha'abi al asil (popular authentic heritage), manifested through various levels of institutions and agencies. They employ hundreds of mudhamers with frequent handsome gifts of racing camels given to the Bedu. The shaikhs' gestures of not taking the car prizes if their own camels win, but rather offering them to the mudhamer in charge, reflect their genuine identification in the revival of heritage among the population.

Return to Index

5. The Politico-Cultural Aspects

The politico-cultural aspects of the camel racing phenomenon manifest themselves through multiple intricate images, representations, and discourses. While a detailed ethnography of all of these representational facets calls for a separate paper, I feel that some brief notes on these aspects are required here if only to complement the larger composite piece of this phenomenon.

Eric Davis' distinction between the notions of "statecraft and state formation" is useful here within the context of changing U AE society. According to Davis (1991: 12): Statecraft applies to the processes or mechanisms whereby a state enhances its power and authority. Put differently, statecraft entails the skills whereby political elites or ruling classes promote state formation. The notion of statecraft allows us to infuse the concept of state formation with a dynamic element. The important question is how groups that control the state are able to widen its legitimacy base and subsequently increase its strength. While our extensive ethnographic notes on the emergence and evolution of camel racing represent a general answer to this question, further notes which relate directly to the dynamic relationship between politics and culture are required here.

The politico-cultural aspects of heritage revival are perhaps the most celebrated in public media. Newspaper and television messages frequently repeated throughout the racing season have acquired more or less a formulaic pattern. The messages simultaneously embody political and cultural signifiers. A typical newspaper message will read as follows: "Within the framework of the directives of His Highness Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, The President of the State, and His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, The Crown Prince... and because of their Highnesses' concern for the revival of our authentic popular heritage (ihyaa' al turath al sha'bi), the preservation of our fathers' and ancestors' sport, and the protection of our authentic Arab customs and traditions, camel races were organized under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Zayed, the President of the State."9 Photographs of the shaikhs present during particular racing festivals will often appear alongside such statements.

The structure of these media statements can be broken down into various interconnected politico-cultural components. First, comes a mention of the name of His Highness Shaikh Zayed, The President of the State, as "the supreme patron" of heritage revival in the country. Second, there is mention of other shaikhs who are patronizing and attending race festivals in their own particular emirate. This reflects the political hierarchical order within the total power and authority structure in UAE political society. Third, a mention of the cultural contribution realized by the shaikhs' attendance and their support for these races. Fourth, a statement on the great cultural value and function of these races for the preservation of national authentic culture. Fifth, in some of these new items also appears the importance of pan-Arabian Gulf cultural political ideology in which the camel stands as a basic cultural theme, in Opler's sense of the term. 10

Within the context of a rapidly changing society empowered by its immense oil wealth and unabated utilization of skills and services of a large expatriate foreign work force, camel races as cultural performances provide a cultural link between the modem changing society and the old cultural lifeways. Both ruling shaikhs as well as citizens are always eager to express the view that camel races are useful for the young generation to learn about how their ancestors lived and how they struggled in their former way of life. In a television interview with the President, Shaikh Zayed, in 1996 he remarked that "this know ledge about the past enhances the citizen's concern and attachment to his watan [homeland]." People should know the government's position in supporting people working to promote our heritage. This knowledge should be an inspiration for us, and for future generations to safeguard our homeland." The ingredients of political culture relating to the function of camel racing functioning as an ideological link, and inspiration for patriotic commitment to the national homeland, and the embodiment of values and norms necessary for cultural political socialization of younger generations are frequently repeated in media messages.

The oil economy has intensified UAE integration within the global market. Along with this has come global culture represented, in Appadurai's terms, by multiple "scapes" such as: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes (Appadurai 1990: 296). One may add other scapes like servicescapes and militaryscapes. These scapes are basically globalizing forces, which have literally created new dynamic and social reality in the emirates, so much so that locals nowadays feel that their traditional national identity is seriously under threat (Heard-Bey 1997). For example, in terms of the dynamics of ethnoscapes alone the UAE society has now, relative to the size of its own indigenous national workers, huge numbers of immigrant population coming from diverse ethnic, national, religious, and cultural backgrounds. The newly created population reality in the UAE is alarming to many nationals as they now represent only a small minority in their own homeland, less than 15-20% of the total population (Al Mur 1997). In this changing sociocultural and economic context the nationals are manifesting in different discourses that their local national culture is threatened; they perceive it to be under siege (Al Mur 1997). The flows of the global world are strong and permeate through all facets and cracks of the old cultural lifeways. It is within these shifting cultural contexts, worldviews and unstable psychocultural parameters that heritage revival becomes significant in sociological terms for the local culture to reaffirm, so to speak, basic old cultural themes, in this case, revolving around the camel. Camel racing festivals have become a social/cultural theater for the regeneration and affirmation of cultural identity. As the media informs us, they have become a way to preserve cultural 'asla (authenticity) and keep cultural roots with the past well nourished and cared for. Camel racing festivals are not only produced nowadays to please camel breeders and fleeting tourists but most importantly they become in the current shifting multicultural contexts a way of identifying cultural self vis-à-vis the other, particularly when this other is overwhelming one's immediate social and cultural space.

The production of cultural aesthetics is not only confined to the scenes of lean camels running in spectacular ways but is also found in the poetic language that is delivered during such festive occasions. The camel arena during the final races of the season turns into a platform for Bedu poets to recite their poems of praise to their shaikhs. The media's systematic use of the Bedu tradition has become an integral part of camel racing as a cultural performance. A detailed expose of such cultural poetics lies outside the parameters of this paper; nonetheless, it is important to note here that poems of camel racing as a traditional form of communication are important in the making and projection of positive images of current national leaders in the UAE. They are invoked as patrons of heritage revival, and as the all-generous and all-caring fathers of their respective people. Excerpts of a long poem presented in the final races in April 1996, as a salute honoring Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, give us a feel for this type of political praise poetry.

In haste I write brief representations.
Only the precious poem pearls I give.
The poor of my poems I discard.
Ye supporter of the weak, the neighbor and brotherly men.
Ye Shaikh of Shaikhs who deserve praise.
The white banner of honor is yours.
For him history registers lofty deeds.
His goodness like rain spreads benefits near and far. Isn't it a delight we celebrate the hejin spectacle.
These hejin deeds are crowned with glory.
Mohammed Al Maktoum, defender of the homeland. Its glory he has raised.
He designed its racetracks.
Widened its urban scapes.
It has become, as often said, a swinging paradise.

The ruling groups in control of the state in the UAE appear not to hide the political rationale behind their support for heritage revival. The economic and cultural rationales are clearly expressed and are frequently emphasized publicly. The systematic attention given to popular culture, and the institutional construction and invocation of historical memory through common references to past roots, authentic heritage, purity and nobleness of the race camels, etc. all demand from the state, to borrow Davis' words, "an ability to reconstruct, synthesize, and even invent symbols that will touch a psychological nerve in the populace at large. A strong state is one that can exercise this craft and that continues to forge emotive links with the populace over which it rules." (1991: 13).

It should be remembered that large racetrack complexes represent in themselves important institutional state projects. They forge, so to speak, big impressions that the oil state, as the modernizing agent par excellence, is eager to produce and manage. As has been ethnographically illustrated, this is a costly business, yet the political dividends earned and directed to strengthen the state are equally high, particularly as this carries great political value as in the new oil states of the Gulf real power is still expressed outside the official state institutions. The massive contribution of the ruling shaikhly elite to local heritage revival and popular culture aims to affect the citizens' political perception of their state. This perception now views this state as a performer, or an embodiment of two vital roles: as a super modernizing agent as well as the guardian of traditional national heritage and cultural identity which manifests itself, among other things, in the now institutionalized annual hejin races.

Return to Index

6. Conclusion: Aspects of Local/Global Dynamics

Camel races as part of a larger phenomenon of heritage revival have been produced over the last two decades under the shadow of globalization processes. Perhaps, as Robertson (1995) would argue, the revival and modern development of these races has occurred because of globalization. The complex process of producing such evolving traditional cultural sports has generated a number of social facts and cultural forms some of which are manifested in cultural ironies and paradoxes. The first cultural irony relates to the fact that the revitalization of "traditional local camel culture" in the changing societies of Arabia has required the assistance of "modern global commodities": oil, the car, and the television, each generating its own cultural dynamics and thus reshaping the production of camel culture. For present-day camel breeders, "she has won a car" has become the often-stated measure for affirming the high value and superior qualities of a race camel. Here we need to return to the images projected on television screens of camels running and prize cars spinning simultaneously on the same grounds of the racetrack.

This leads to further irony related to the commercialization of camel traditions. This is due to the new economic and commercial lure created by the shaikhs' financial support, the local car agents and businessmen who function as interlocutors within the global car industries and local markets as well as the prevailing high consumerism in the society. This commercialized aspect of reproducing traditional culture is of primary importance as it sustains the continuation of camel races to generate at another level "cultural theater" and "ideological discourse," both necessary for the creation of an ideological dimension within the larger processes of state formation of the UAE as a new and modern nation-state. This point alerts us to the analytical significance of cultural economy in present-day globalized oil Gulf society.

The third paradox relates to the politico-cultural discourse that emphasizes the great cultural roles performed by the local people and their ruling elite groups, at the expense of marginalizing contributions from the global actors and forces that are actually involved in every stage of the organization and production processes of the races. Here, as examples, we refer to the Balochi shepherd, the Somali camel jockey, the Australian breeding scientist, and the Dutch camel nutritionist, as well as others who represent the various scapes which Appadurai (1990) identified as constituting the global scene. This can be explained by the fact that we are dealing here with a small society (only 2.3 million at the end of 1994) where national citizens themselves are only a small minority of less than 20% of this total population. 11 This population imbalance expresses itself among the local nationals in having "under siege psychology," as they feel and often express that their local culture is being seriously threatened by forces of foreign cultures (Al Mur 1997; Heard-Bey 1997). It is, therefore, not surprising that the cultural discourse on heritage, as' expressed in the UAE press and television should highlight and glorify the role of the national segments of the total population in the production of such cultural revivals.

This brings us to the fourth fact that relates to the fusion of the social and politico-ideological elements in the construction of the races as national cultural performances. The ethnographic material presented in this research topic illustrates the fact that the core activities in camel racing revolve around tile traditional tribal components and aspects that are still visible in U AE modernizing society. Equally significant, the revival of Bedu traditions in this changing society maintains an important traditional and conservative anchorage to the entire politico-ideological system in the society. This fact is functionally congruent with the very nature of the existing type of traditional patrimonial dynastic authority structure in the oil rich states. The Bedu in the UAE and the wider Gulf societies are known to be conservative and most loyal to the existing traditional shaikhly political system. Subsequently the revival and modernization of their camel related traditions are meant among other things to celebrate, through created annual institutional forms, elements of cultural continuity and conservatism in a society threatened by its own pace and modality of change which are strongly linked to wide currents and flows of global culture.

Television coverage of Bedouin poetry and traditions related to the camel achieves this goal by delimiting the boundaries and identifying symbols of the nationals' social and cultural image. It should be added that the race festivals provide the state apparatus, through its control of modem media, sufficient fodder from which it is deriving significant components of its national ideological discourse. Equally significant the political voice of pan-Arabian Gulf countries (the Gulf Cooperation Council countries) is also heard during the festivities of the races. This is also celebrated in the frequent presence of high-ranking dignitaries from the ruling families of other Gulf states.

The fifth note relates to the fact that production of camel races as cultural festivals as documented involves people and groups of different nationalities and social positions: shaikhs, wealthy merchants, tribesmen, foreign professional experts, and foreign camel laborers. In view of this sociological fact one could ask if there is no class contradiction in this total process of cultural enterprise? I believe that the absence of discussion on class and/or ideological contradictions does not create here an analytical gap. Briefly stated, certain important facts and factors, all have helped to repress, as it were, the emergence of contradictions and tensions along class lines. These include the capacity of the oil state to lavish its wealth onto its small national population, the generous institutionalized financial and moral support given to camels and race festivals, the huge often temporary presence of expatriate labor force, the nationals' perception of their local culture as being under siege, thus reinforcing among them the "in-group" psycho political values and sentiments, the very short historical experience of oil wealth and modernization and the generalized anxieties towards the overshadowing global forces. Besides, the notion of statecraft suggests that state supported cultural festivities are, after all, meant to celebrate, in the Gramscian sense of the term, the solidity of cultural and national identity. This function becomes more urgent and compelling particularly when this national culture in question is being constructed within wide shifting multicultural forces and contexts which threaten to dilute it and fragment it into different directions. At a general level of discourse our total ethnographic description on the evolution of camel racing illustrate very well Gramsci's notion of the delicate utilization of culture in its varied domains and forms as part and parcel of the state repertoire and armor in building its ideological ascendancy and promoting further its legitimacy and success for state formation. 12

It remains, however, relevant to note here that there are areas of relative economic exploitation affecting foreign laborers employed in camel farms. This fact is not found only in the enterprise of camel racing but is rather common with regard to all non-skilled expatriate laborers throughout the Gulf. In relation to this fact, incomes earned by such laborers represent, as they often express, a God-given opportunity to earn a living and support their families back home where deteriorating harsh economic realities are driving them away by the thousands.

As a final note the evolution of camel racing as a national cultural enterprise represents a complex multidimensional phenomenon. While society is utilizing in the production of this phenomenon modern global "homogenizing" cultural flows, agencies, technologies, and commodities, it aims at empowering its "particularizing" and relativizing traditional cultural sense of identity. This remains the stated objective even though what is being produced on the stage now has become different from the old authentic camel culture of yesterday.

My profound gratitude and thanks go to the United Arab Emirates University for funding this research that was conducted during 1996-98 racing seasons. Many informants were particularly generous with their time and help. Here I would like to offer my special thanks to Mohammed Said and Mohammed Said Al Hilli, both from Dubai, Dr. Ulrich Wernery, Director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai. There were scores of other informants from the Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and expatriate professionals and laborers like Australians, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Sudanese, Somalis, Bangladeshis, whose generosity and appreciation of my research made it possible to complete this research and collect a wealth of ethnographic data which go beyond the scope of this particular paper.


Footnotes

Return to Index

1 The fieldwork for this research was conducted during the camel racing seasons over the last three years (1996- 98). The research involved field visits to racing tracks in the United Arab Emirates, visiting numerous camel farms, conducting lengthy interviews with those involved in the production and organization of the races such as Bedu breeders, trainers, personnel of the Camel Racing Association, and expatriate camel farm laborers and other professionals working in the camel clinics and veterinary research centres. The many hours spent watching and recording camel races and camel-related television cultural programs came to be very useful for this research. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this research was visiting camel owners while camping in their tents on the outskirts of racetracks. They came primarily from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE itself. They were hospitable and always ready to invite me in to share coffee and tea with them. Most of the time I found them willing and excited to talk about their newly developing business of camel breeding and camel racing. The coffee drinking often led to sharing late breakfasts or lunch with them. Return to text

2 On Julian Steward's theoretical conceptualization of "cultural ecology" see Robert Netting 1986: 6. Also see Haviland 1981: 170. Return to text

3 In the Lisan Al-Arab Lexicon the word hejin means "inter-breeds." It also means a woman or a camel that comes from noble stock. Al-hejin in camels refers to the white as well as to the superior quality types. See Al-Iman Abi Al-Fadl n.d.: 431-434. Return to text

4 While officially the races start at the beginning of September, because of the heat they do not gain momentum until October each year. Return to text

5 Camel Racing Association rules were published 1993 in Abu Dhabi, UAE Return to text

6 See final camel races program booklet, Dubai, March 1998: 3 Return to text

7 In this statement we hear an echo of Malinowski's Trobriand voices (9184 [1922] who claimed that once one gets into the "kula ring" system of exchange he cannot get out of it. The multiplexity of relationships and benefits involved in each of these two "rings" are quite similar. Thus the force of continuing involvement on the part of participating actors. Return to text

8 An advertisement leaflet published by the Hilton Hotel in Al Ain City in 1997. Return to text

9 Al Itihad Newspaper, 22 April 1996: 3. Return to text

10 For a brief expose of Opler's notion of "basic cultural themes" see Fred Voget (1975: 421-425). Return to text

11 Ministry of Planning Report of the end of the 1994 population census. Published in Al Bayan Newspaper, 30 September 1995: 3. Return to text

12 For detailed writings on Gramsci's political ideas on popular culture ideology and state hegemony, see the works published by Joseph Femia (1987) and David Forgacs (1988). Return to text


References Cited

Return to Index

Al-Faris, Abdul Razaq
1996 Economic Development in the UAE. In: Emirates Society; pp. 74-93. Al Ain: UAE University Publications.
Al-lman, Abi Al Fadl
n.d. Al Lisan Al Arab. Vol. 13: 431-433. Beirut: Dar Sader Publications:
Al Mur, Mohammad
1997 Amal Wataneyyah [Nationalist Aspirations]. Sharjah, UAE: Al Khaleej Publications.
Appadurai, Arjun
1990 Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. In: Mike Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture. Nationalism, Globalization, and Identity; pp.296-308. London: Sage Publications.
Chatty, Dawn
1986 From Camel to Truck. The Bedouin in the Modem World. New York: Vantage Press.
Conzen, Kathleen
1989 Ethnicity as Festive Culture. Nineteenth Century German America on Parade. In: Werner Sollors (ed.), The Invention of Ethnicity; pp. 44- 75. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cordes, Rainer, and Fred Scholz
1982 Bedouins, Wealth, and Change. A Study of Rural Development in the UAE and the Sultanate of Oman. (Arabic translation by Abdulillah Abu Ayyash). Kuwait: Kuwait University Press.
Davis, Eric
1991 Theorizing Statecraft and Social Change in Arab Oil- Producing Countries. In: Eric Davis and Nicolas Gavrielides (eds.), Statecraft in the Middle East. Oil, Historical Memory, and Popular Culture; pp. 1-35. Miami: Florida International University Press.
Featherstone, Mike
1990 Introduction. In: Mike Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture. Nationalism, Globalization, and Identity. London: Sage Publications.
Femia, Joseph
1987 Gramsci's Political Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Forgacs, David (ed.)
1988 A Gramsci Reader. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Harvey, David
1989 The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Haviland, William A.
1981 Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Heard-Bey, Franke
1997 Labour Migration and Culture. The Impact of Immigration on the Culture of the Arab Societies of the Gulf. (Paper presented at BRISMES Conference, Oxford)
Ismail, Jacqueline
1982 Kuwait -Social Change in Historical Perspective. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Khalaf, Sulayman, and Hassan Hammond
1988 The Emergence of the Oil Welfare State. The Case of Kuwait. Dialectical Anthropology 12: 343-357.
Macluhan, Marshall
1964 Understanding Media. The Extension of Man. New York: Signet.
Malinowski, Bronislow
1984 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press. [1922]
Munif, Abdul Al Rahman
1985 Muden Al-Milh [The Salt Cities]. Beirut: Arab Establishment for Research Studies and Publications. [2nd ed.]
Netting, Robert
1986 Cultural Ecology. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.
Robertson, Ronald
1992 Globalization. Social Theory and Global Culture. Lon-on: Sage Publications.
1995 Globalization. Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity. In: M. Featherstone, S. Lash, and R. Robertson (eds.), Global Modernities. London: Sage Publications.
Sweet, Louise
1970 Camel Raiding of North Arabian Bedouin. A Mechanism of Ecological Adaptation. In: Louise Sweet (ed.), Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East. An Anthropological Reader. Vol. 1; pp. 265-289. New York: National History Press
Voget, Fred W.
1975 A History of Ethnology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Williams, Raymond
1983 Culture. Glasgow: Fontana Publishers.

Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan