Camel Racing with Robot Jockeys
The robots, weighing only a few pounds and made to look like tiny jockeys, have taken the place of children as the preferred jockey for camel racing in Abu Dhabi.
Camel racing, in one form or another, has been part of Arabian culture for generations, with some historians tracing races to the seventh century. Camels are viewed as magnificent creatures here - there are even camel beauty pageants - and racing is seen as a unifying activity, a sport that brings together people of all backgrounds, whether royals or paupers, businessmen or laborers.
Racing in the U.A.E. became more organized in the 1980s and ’90s, when Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the first president of the federation, oversaw construction of several racetracks. As races became more competitive and prize money grew, many camel owners began to use lightweight children as jockeys, some as young as 2 or 3, importing them from countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. Falls and critical injuries were common. Trading, bartering and kidnapping of child jockeys, as well as accusations of physical and sexual abuse, were frighteningly frequent, too. At one point, it was estimated that 40,000 child jockeys were being used across the Persian Gulf.
The horrors of that human trafficking left a scar for the sport that lingers even now, 12 years after the practice was officially banned in the U.A.E. Some owners said quietly that they still might prefer to have human jockeys - though none would say so publicly - but a majority, perhaps recognizing the troubling perception of having children ride animals that stand 6 feet tall and can run up to 40 miles per hour, unabashedly praised the technology now widely used instead: robots.
Early models of the robots, which were first produced in 2003, were cumbersome and weighed as much as 30 pounds. The camels generally did not respond well to them, and owners were put off by the difficulty of obtaining them.
In the years since, the production of the robots has become more local and more streamlined. Now, camel owners can go to numerous shops or markets in the U.A.E. to buy robots and accessories, which can even include deluxe silks (the robots are made to actually look like tiny jockeys). The latest version of the robot weighs only a few pounds.
One shop, located a quick ride (or, alternately, a leisurely stroll on a camel) from the racetrack in Dubai, advertised its wares with a display of robots in various colors outside the front door. Inside, two Pakistani men, who gave their names as Raheem and Jameel, worked at tables strewn with tools, bolts and power drills.
The Dewalt power drill is the heart and lungs of the modern robot jockey; shop workers like Raheem and Jameel order the drills in bulk and use them, and their rechargeable batteries, to construct the core of each robot. Remote-entry clickers (the kind used for cars) combine with long ribbons of plastic wrapped in cotton to make a spinning whip that can be activated from afar, and walkie-talkies allow the owner to speak to the camel from a trailing S.U.V.