Camel Racing History (USA Included!)

Today’s camel races include jockeys as robots, the fastest breeds are the cloned ones, and the race-winning camels are covered in saffron. 

A lot has changed since the first days people started racing camels. 

Camel racing first originated in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, it was just an informal part of cultural events and ceremonies like weddings and birthdays. 

In this article, we will look at the history of camel racing in various countries in the world.

camel racing history

Camel Racing History In Saudi Arabia

The first official camel race was organized in Saudi Arabia in 1964 as part of the Heritage Festival.

The early decades of the oil revolution in the 1960s and 1970s in the Middle East saw an increased marginalization of camels and Bedouin herders. 

Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal bin Abdulaziz, afraid that the camel is slowly being erased from the Arab heritage, allowed the festival to include a camel race. 

This 12-mile long race (19 km) proved to be a massive success and became a regular part of the Heritage Festival. 

10 years later, in 1975, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia inaugurated such races and camel racing became a fully professional sport, paving the road for its development in other countries.

First camel races included human jockeys-most of them being children. 

However, due to an increasing concern about child trafficking and the pressure of other countries, the Saudi Arabian government banned jockeys under the age of 18. [1]

Those children were getting injured, abducted, or even sold by their families to be used as child jockeys.

Fast forward until today, and huge races and camel festivals are being organized in Saudi Arabia, some with multi-million big prizes. 

Saudi Arabia organizes 5 camel races annually, and two of the largest are:

  • The Crown Prince Camel Festival in Taif
  • The King Abdul-Aziz Camel Festival in Riyadh

The Crown Prince Festival set a new Guinness World Record in 2021 for the largest number of camels participating in a camel festival. 

It broke the previous two records it had set, and in 2021 had 14,843 camels competing for total prize money of 14 million dollars.[2]

The King Abdul-Aziz Festival is another large cultural, economic, sports and entertainment festival that is usually organized in February. 

It is a month-long festival with over 19 categories camels can compete in and a staggering 66 million dollar prize money. [3]

Camel Racing History In UAE

During the 1980s, United Arab Emirates became the main country to organize camel racing competitions. At the time, a local camel committee was formed to manage and coordinate the races. The first races were organized at the Nad Al Shiba racetrack in Dubai.

Dubai’s famous Nad al-Sheba camel racetrack was built for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum in 1986 and was considered to be the most famous and beautiful camel track in the world before it was demolished in 2009.

In the 1990s camel racing was getting more and more popular and gaining bigger financial support, encouragement, and involvement of the ruling families of the UAE.

This lead to the development of the first Camel Racing Association (CRA) in 1992.

Its goal was to institutionalize, formalize, and develop regulations on camel racing. 

In UAE, 7 camel races are organized per year, and there are over 15 camel racing tracks.

The 3 major ones are:

  • Al Marmoom 
  • Al Wathba in Abu Dhabi
  • Al Sawan in Ras Al Khaimah

Two of the largest camel festivals there are:

  •  The Al Marmoom Heritage Festival
  • The Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Camel Race Festival

The Al Marmoom Festival lasts for over 12 days and has over 14,000 camels competing for the grand prize of 42 million dollars.

The United Arab Emirates was the first country to ban the use of children under the age of 15 as camel jockeys back in 2002.

And in 2009 UAE paid compensation to 879 former jockeys for the abuse and injuries suffered.

Camel Racing History In Qatar

The first camel racing competition organized in Qatar was in 1973, where 300 camels participated. The race was organized near today’s Al-Shahaniya area.

The first racetrack that was used in 1974 was Al Rayyan Square.

In 1990 the Al-Shahaniya camel racetrack was built in Ash Shahaniyah.  

The camel racing competitions take place from October to February, with the main competitions n March and April where the winners get the prestigious Golden Sword of the Father Emir at the end of the camel racing festival.

Qatar organizes around 12 camel races per year.

Out of other Arab countries, Oman organizes 9 races per year, Bahrain 5 races, and Kuwait around 7 races.

Camel Racing History in Egypt

The first camel race organized in Egypt was in 1987 at the Zalaga Valley in the Sinai Peninsula. Today they are organized in over 10 Egyptian governorates. 

The first camel track in Egypt was established in 1994 on the coast of the city Arish.

A camel racing committee was also formed to oversee and organize camel races in Egypt.

In 1997, the first camel sports club was formed in Egypt.

After that, 11 more camel clubs were formed, along with the Egyptian Camel Federation.

Today, the largest race is still the one organized in January at the Zalaga Valley. [4]

Another worth noting is The Sharm el-Sheikh International Camel Racing Contest that is smaller compared to other Arab countries but still has around 500 camels participating.

Camel Racing History In Australia

The first official camel race held in Australia was in March 1971 in the town of Alice Springs, under the name The Alice Springs Camel Cup.

At the start of the 1970s, two friends of Alice Springs challenged one another to a camel race.[5]

The race gathered a lot of interest and proved to be an immediate hit. 

It developed into a professional event with commentators, journalists, and professional jockeys participating in years to follow. 

In 1988 The Great Australian Camel Race was organized to celebrate the impact of camels on Australia. 

The race was 2,011 miles long (3,236 km), and 69 participants were competing for a 40,000 $ prize.

The winner, Gordon O’Connell, is said to have been at a pub drinking beer when he learned he had won, with 32 hours ahead of the next competitor, Australia’s elite SASR (Special Air Service Regiment).

His camel Carla is considered one of the most famous camels in the world.

The Australian Camel Racing Association was formed in December 1997, to coordinate and set standards and rules for camel races.

Today, three of the most popular camel races in Australia are the Camel Cup in Alice Springs, the Uluru Camel Cup, and Boulia Camel Races, and prizes reach 45,000 $.

Camel Racing History In USA

One of the oldest camel races in the USA was held in 1959 in Virginia City, Nevada. This event called The International Camel & Ostrich Races is usually organized in September.

It started as a rather comical story born out of a rivalry of 2 newspapers.

Bob Richards, the editor of the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, printed a fictitious story about camel races in Virginia, and the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle reprinted it.

Realizing that they were made a fool, the Chronicle sent a team of camels and jockeys they borrowed from the San Francisco Zoo next year to race.

The local community accepted this opportunity and the race was organized ever since.

Besides camels, thousands of visitors can watch ostrich and zebra races, and children chasing emus and chicken.

The USA has a rich camel history, not just when it comes to racing.

The first camels originated in the southwest of the country and from there migrated to Asia, Africa, and Europe.

We have an article on where and when camels originated, make sure to check it out.

Further reading: Where can I ride a camel in the USA?

Final Thoughts

This concludes our article on camel racing history.

First camel races were organized on the Arabian Peninsula around the 7th century A.D. as part of social events and gatherings. The first professional camel race was organized in Saudi Arabia in 1964. UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Australia, and the USA have a rich camel racing history as well.

Want to learn how much camels are worth in those countries? Check out this article.


References

[1] Unicef: UAE ends child jockey use, Al Jazeera

[2] Makkah governor crowns winners of 3rd Crown Prince Camel Festival, Arab News

[3] Saudi Arabia is preparing to host the world’s largest camel festival, The Siasat Daily

[4] The House in Which a Camel Grunts, Slate Group

[5] Wilson, George R. “Australian camel racing.” Canberra: Rural Industries Research (1999)

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