Discovering Qatar’s Traditional Sports - Camel Racing
While the Qatari nation may be one of the richest in the world per capita, and though it has gone through a period of extremely rapid modernisation during the last seventy years, its culture remains firmly rooted in its Middle Eastern heritage. That heritage is evident for all to see in the country's architecture, traditional clothing, food and drink, the iconic landmarks and sights built or preserved across the country, and in its traditional sports, which, though modernised, are still very much alive today.
Image: Kateryna Galkina/Shutterstock.com
Modern Qatar can thank its desert-dwelling Bedouin heritage for many of its cultural traditions. From its patriarchal society, open hospitality and fierce loyalty to family to its winter camping traditions, sadu textiles (which adorn sofas, curtains and cushions in living spaces across the country) and love of hunting and racing with camels, horses and falcons.
Bedouins, who roamed the Qatari peninsula for centuries before the country's people settled and urbanised and before the nation established itself as a single unified and independent entity and discovered oil and gas, lived a nomadic lifestyle dominated by the need for food, shelter and security. To that end, the Bedouins formed a close relationship with the animals they reared. Typically herding sheep, goats and camels, the nomads could clothe, shelter and feed themselves - clothing, tents and blankets were weaved or created using animal hair and skin, and milk and meat derived from the herds were an essential part of their diets. Horses and falcons were also integral to the Bedouin's survival. Horses provided transport and were instruments of warfare, carrying riders on raids and into battle. Falcons were used for hunting to supplement their diet in a harsh and unforgiving environment where food scarcity was an ever-present threat. Camels and horses were also used as entertainment, with races held on various social and festive occasions.
As the Bedouin people began to settle across Qatar (alongside coastal settlers from the fishing, pearling and trading industries) and modern conveniences started to become commonplace, the need for herd animals, animals for transport or warfare, and for hunting diminished. By the mid-20th century, long-held traditions such as camel racing, horse racing and falcon hunting were seriously threatened. However, the Qatari government and its people rallied and invested time, money and effort into reviving all three sports to preserve what had been and still are today, three culturally important institutes. All three sports, jumping into the 21st century, are now thriving, economically important and internationally renowned offerings from the tiny country in the Middle East.
So, what can you expect to find in Qatar when it comes to traditional sports, and where can you watch the competitions unfold? In this article, the first of three, we look into camel racing in Qatar and give you the lowdown on being part of the nation’s heritage, if just for a couple of hours…
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Camel racing, traditionally practised by Bedouins at social gatherings and festivals, has been part of Middle Eastern culture for centuries. Aside from providing food, clothing, shelter and transport, camels were highly regarded as evidence of a tribe or an individual's wealth. Thus, camel races were not just fun events for spectators; they were also a show of status - an important aspect in a community where social standing brought personal progress, marriage and wealth. And the traditions and customs practised alongside the races held significant meaning to the nomadic way of life.
When camel ownership declined with the discovery of oil and the onset of Qatar's modernisation, this aspect of Qatar's heritage was in danger of becoming obsolete. Fortunately, recognising the issue, several camel racing tracks were opened in the desert to the west of Doha in the 1970s. This investment sparked the beginning of the country's development of professional-level camel racing. In the 1990s, the sport's growth was cemented with the formation of the Camel Racing Organising Committee (CROC) and the establishment of today's modern racetrack at Al Shahaniya - purpose-built with a host of facilities and amenities and a trackside roadway for SUVs to follow the action. Thanks to Qatar's forward-thinking, the country's camel racing industry today is a multi-million dollar business and a highly lucrative form of revenue, and plays a vital role in keeping ancient traditions and customs alive.
And while you may not own a camel, you can join in the excitement and experience the thrill of camel races, just as the Bedouins did in the centuries before us...
Al Shahaniya Racetrack
Once you arrive, you'll find three sandy oval tracks for 6, 8, and 10km races that dominate much of the Al Shahaniya Racetrack facilities. Each has a tarmacked road on either side of the course for trainers and spectators to follow the races in SUVs. Each track is also equipped with lighting for evening races. Other facilities include terraces, a veterinary clinic, training facilities, camel stalls, a mosque and amenities.
On race days, and after a pre-race dash to warm up, the camels are positioned behind starting gates. If you are lucky enough to be on the track during a race, prepare for a wild ride. Once the starting signal sounds, the gates are opened, and the race begins with the sudden rush of long-necked and gangly-legged beasts leaping out of their docks. And then the sprint is on. On both sides of the spectators' track, SUVs join the melee and speed after the racing camels to watch the live action in close quarters. Commentators follow the live-action in their vehicles and broadcast the event via the track speakers. And trainers race alongside, scrutinising progress and performance, while shouting commands to their animal via walkie-talkies that connect to the jockey (the jockey being a small humanoid-shaped, remote-controlled robot sitting on the camel's back and dressed in bright racing silks).
The noise, the flying dust clouds, the slightly bizarre sight of the running camels and the thrill of racing alongside them makes for an exhilarating day. It is no wonder that this revived sport has gained so much popularity since the 1970s.
If there is one sport to see while in Qatar that mixes tradition and modernity to such a delightful effect, it is camel racing in the desert...
When to Visit
The camel racing season generally starts in or around October and culminates in March/April time with the major racing competitions of the season.
Local races are usually held on Fridays and Saturdays in the morning from 6 am - 9 am and in the afternoon from 1 pm - 4 pm.
Annual races include the Emir's Main Race, the top camel race in Qatar, which attracts participants from all over the Gulf. The annual races usually occur between 7 am and 2 pm on Fridays.
You can also visit the racetrack in the mornings to watch training sessions in action. Training generally starts between 9:30 am and 10 am.
Entry to the track and the races is free. However, you must have a 4x4 or SUV car to join the races; the police will not let you follow the race in a sedan for safety reasons.
For more information on race times and events, contact the racetrack:
Tel: +974 4487 2028 / 4448 6900
How to Get There
Under an hour away from Doha city centre, Al Shahaniya Racetrack is located in the centre of the Qatari peninsula and is surrounded by a desert landscape. The track sits next to the small settlement of Ash-Shahaniya, just off the Dukhan Highway.
To reach the racetrack:
- Head west out of Doha and on to the Dukhan Highway at Education City.
- From Education City, the journey to Al Shahaniya takes about 30 minutes, taking you past the Mall of Qatar and the FIFA World Cup Al Rayyan Stadium on the right, and Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani Museum on the left.
- Signs to the racetrack will direct you off of the highway just past the Al Shahaniya and Woqod petrol stations.
- The road to the track runs to the right from the Dukhan Highway.
- The track sits on the left-hand side of the road.
The nearest Metro station to the track is the Al Riffa Station at the Mall of Qatar. Once at the mall, there are plenty of taxis’ that can transport you to the nearby racetrack.
Main image: Satheesh_Madh/Shutterstock.com
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