AL SHAHANIYA, Qatar – “I didn’t know camels could run so fast!” said U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Melanie Haynes, from Del City, Okla., during a camel race in Al Shahaniyah, Qatar, Feb. 21. “It’s amazing they don’t need a lure to keep them running. I didn’t know camels could be trained to race.”
Haynes and U.S. Army Maj. Isaac Peay, from Cassatt, S.C., were participating in the U.S. Central Command rest and recuperation pass program in Qatar, a Gulf state located along the eastern coastline of the Arabian Peninsula. During their four-day pass from duty in Iraq, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Gregory Lewis-Seals, from Dewitt, N.Y., sponsored them to leave the U.S. military installation and witness a popular local past time: camel racing.
“Today we use robots but I was a camel jockey as a child,” said Ali Nasser Al Naimi, a Qatari camel owner and trainer who travels to the Al Shahaniyah race track nearly every day. Camels require constant encouragement to keep running. Amid pressure from human rights activists, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar emir, ordered child camel jockeys to be replaced with robots in 2003 – capturing interest from robotics corporations in United States, Europe and Japan.
“Our first robots were from Switzerland,” said Naimi. “They were too heavy – around 25 kilograms – and their whipping technique didn’t make the weight worth it. Eventually, we received robots from United Arab Emirates that weighed less than three kilograms. They were designed using a common drill motor, rechargeable batteries and a whip – everything assembled to look like a little man. The final robots gave us better performance with fewer injuries to both humans and camels – by far.” According to Naimi, the fastest camel’s record was beaten by over a minute with the introduction of the new technology.
“A camel’s value is based on how well it performs,” he said. According to Naimi, racing camels are generally worth around $20,000 to $275,000. The fastest camels in Qatar are frequently valued over $300,000 – top performers can reach over $2 million.
“Sadly, my camel is showing the beginning signs of sickness today,” said Naimi, driving alongside the race track with Haynes, Peay and Lewis-Seals along for the ride, watching his camel try to keep up. “I can tell he’s getting ill by how poorly he’s running,” said Naimi, controlling the robotic jockey’s whip from his car and talking to the animal through an integrated audio receiver. His camel was trained to respond to verbal commands, to include its name.
“Being in a camel owner’s car during a race was fascinating,” said Peay. “Some camels gave out, while others sped up. I saw one really pick up its stride. Everyone was controlling their robot jockeys with remotes and cars were getting all mashed together – it was wild!”
“The camel races put us in an entertaining and relaxing environment,” said Peay. “I enjoyed Qatar’s weather and generous people. Coming to an event that’s important to our host nation is good for building relationships. When they see us here, they see us taking an interest in their lifestyle.”
“This was a great opportunity to enjoy Arabic culture in a peaceful atmosphere,” said Haynes. “I brought a camcorder to show my kids a video of how fast camels can run.”