Driving along a six-lane highway heading south from Dubai city, I notice signs along the road for Camel Race Tracks. Curious, I ask our driver about camel racing. “This is a very popular sport in the UAE (United Arab Emirates)” he explains. “Camel racing is big in all of the Arab Gulf States, but nowhere is it as huge as in Dubai. We have 15 racetracks in the UAE alone. You can’t bet on ‘your’ camel, but prize money for the winners is considerable.” “And who rides these camels?” I ask. “The camels are ridden by robots” our driver answers. Ridden by what? I ask again. “The camels are ridden by robotic jockeys” he confirms. So, I DID hear correctly. The camels’ owners put robots on their camels instead of riders. “Don’t believe me?” he asks. “Check it out on YouTube.”
And so I did. Back on the ship I Google “camel” “racing” “robot” “jockeys”, but rather than learning about this curious little machine that sits on a camel’s back and drives the animal forward, I discover more than my stomach can handle about the dark side of the Sheikh’s favourite sport: child slavery. But let me explain:
Camel racing in the Arab world is an old tradition, but in modern times the sport has become ultra competitive. Racing camels cost millions of dollars. They are fed a high-nutrition diet of milk, dates, honey, barley and clover spiked with vitamins. At its fastest, a camel can run 65 km/h (40 mi/h), but not for long. The most competitive camels are females, many of which can race 40 km/h (25 mi/h) for up to an hour. Riding these camels is difficult as there isn’t much to hold on to. The weight of the jockey is especially crucial if you want to be competitive – the less the better. And that’s why starved children are being used. They are perched on the backs of the camels, beat the animals with a whip and drive them forward by yelling and screaming loudly.
The “recruitment” of child jockeys has a particularly ugly side. Kidnapped, taken, smuggled or bought from desperate parents who cannot feed their families, children as young as 3 years of age are brought to the UAE from South Asian countries (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh). In the UAE, they live behind barbed wire at camel farms and camel race tracks. The police and immigration officials are complicit in this. They turn a blind eye knowing very well that the kings and sheikhs like to keep the sport as it is. Beaten, sexually abused and starved, these little children live dangerous lives. Many fall off the camels during practice runs and races, get trampled by the animals and severely injured or even killed. When a child dies, it is buried in an unmarked grave. Because of the dangers involved, Arab children are no longer used.
In 2002, the UAE officially banned the use of child jockeys. In 2005 the government raised the minimum age for camel jockeys to eighteen years of age, it introduced prison penalties and fines for violators, reached an agreement with UNICEF over the repatriation of the children and offered compensation to the families. Some were rescued and returned to their home countries and families while some were placed in a shelter for child camel jockey victims. Repatriation, however, is difficult. Many children were so young when they were taken from their families, they don’t know their home country, don’t speak their native language and don’t recognize their parents. Also, unless the parents’ situation has improved, mom and dad are likely to resell their child. If the children’s parents are found and the children are allowed to stay with their families, they face enormous challenges. Stunted in their development mentally and physically by malnutrition, physical abuse and mental stress, they are damaged for life.
During my brief research into this sad subject, I am curious to see if the practice of child smuggling and slavery for the purpose of camel racing is still a problem. The most recent article I can find was published by The Express Tribune, an English language Pakistani newspaper on May 8, 2013. The article’s author, Zahid Gishkori writes about the struggle families face when their children are returned from the UAE (as their children are now mentally unfit to live on their own). He also writes: “A decade after being banned, those working on the camel jockey supply chain ... in Pakistan have yet to close up shop” and “There is always a buyer if there is a seller.” He closes his article with this: “The Express Tribune had written to the UAE mission in Pakistan for their version on this issue but it refused to comment.”
Sadly, the UAE is not the only country that continues to use child jockeys during camel races. Other Gulf States are equally guilty of child slavery. Yes, robots have replaced jockeys on the most high profile race tracks in the region but many tracks, primarily those hidden from the eyes of tourists, still adhere to the practice of importing and enslaving children from the poorest countries on earth.