Lulu, Queen of the Camels

In its loopy way the dromedary camel is already perfect, but in recent years biologists have been competing to refine it. The motivation comes from camel racing -- the Sport of Sheikhs
(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts two and three.)

JULIAN Skidmore is lithe and petite, with small wrists and delicate features, and a serene but determined countenance. Watching Skidmore at work for a while, her auburn hair held back by a blue ribbon, a glint of light catching the small pearl in each earlobe, I was reminded of Gainsborough's portrait of the young Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Then Skidmore removed her left arm from a camel's rectum, peeled off a shoulder-length Krause Super-Sensitive disposable examination glove, and said, "Can I make you a cup of coffee?" She had completed eight of the morning's sixteen ultrasound scans. It was time for a break.


Illustration by Jack Unruh


Skidmore, an Englishwoman known to everyone as Lulu, has emerged during the past few years as among the foremost practitioners in one of the world's more improbable growth industries. There are many reasons why Camelus dromedarius, the single-humped dromedary camel of Africa, Arabia, and southern Asia, might have deserved to become a focus of scientific investment. To begin with, about 14 million of these animals roam the planet. The dromedary camel is a baroque masterpiece of biological engineering. It is relied upon by millions of people for meat and milk, and as a means of transportation. In truth, however, the impetus to scientific study came from none of these things. It came from a passion for competitive camel racing on the part of Middle Eastern sheikhs, who have been known to pay more than $1 million for a superior racing camel, and who relish the prospect of a breeding program for camels similar to what has long existed for thoroughbred racehorses. Establishing such a program has turned out to be harder than anyone anticipated.

Lulu Skidmore works for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai and the Defense Minister of the United Arab Emirates. The Maktoum family, which has ruled Dubai since the 1830s, has for decades been among the most powerful forces in the world of horse racing. Sheikh Mohammed himself owns more thoroughbred racehorses than anyone else in the world, and during a typical year in British competition the horses fielded by the Maktoum family's Godolphin Stables claim the greatest number of wins. Outside the Middle East the sheikh's deep interest in the ancient sport of camel racing is not well known. But the Maktoums are reputed to own a herd of 10,000 camels, and Sheikh Mohammed keeps a string of 2,000. His camels are eyed with envy by other sheikhs, and his stable maintains an imposing presence on the camel tracks of the Arab world.

The demands of camel racing have created, almost overnight, a thriving new field of biological endeavor -- one that has proved irresistible even to researchers who began their careers with a different focus entirely. Two decades ago the field of camel biology was virtually nonexistent. For all the lore and mystique surrounding the camel, the byways of its physical functioning were far less well known than those of the cat, the rat, or the nematode. And yet by 1992 the First International Camel Conference could draw some 200 specialists to Dubai. A second international conference is now being planned.

Lulu Skidmore is already looking beyond that point. "Obviously, the motivation for all this work was racing," she says. "But the sheikh is keen that Dubai should be on the map. From Dubai's point of view, it is important to be on the map in the world of science as well as in the world of camel racing. And the science could be doing a lot of good for other countries."

THE desert sheikhdom of Dubai, one of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, is essentially a city-state straddling a strategic inlet on the northeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Oil was discovered in Dubai only three decades ago, and the oil will probably run out before another three decades have passed. The rulers of Dubai have set out to make the sheikhdom a mercantile entrepôt and financial hub, and they are succeeding. Skyscrapers in compelling shapes rise above Dubai Creek, where dhows are moored five deep along the waterfront. Construction is under way everywhere, and open trucks haul immigrant workers from site to site. In the older parts of the city elegant wind towers of stone and daub rise above the houses, trapping the gulf breezes and directing them below. Desalination plants make possible golf courses and polo grounds and lush median strips. The souks are clean and freshly swept, and not far distant from shopping malls where the names Armani and Ralph Lauren and Moschino are prominent. There is no crime to speak of; the main local newspaper ran a story while I was there, earlier this year, about the trial of someone who had been charged with pickpocketing.

On the streets native Emiratis gowned in crisp white dishdashas, their heads covered with red-and-white-checked gutras, walk among a population that has become polychrome and polyglot. At the Hotel Inter-Continental the daily breakfast buffet features French toast, salted hammour fish, baked beans, channa masala, miso soup, fried rice, lamb chops, and Cheerios. Television channels are available in Japanese and Hindi. The one bookstore I found in Dubai had an aisle devoted to "Oprah's Book Club." Women in Dubai may drive cars, and Western women may lie on the beach in bikinis. But there is no lack of reminders about where you really are. On a table in my hotel room a small sticker with an arrow labeled QIBLA showed the direction for prayer. Minarets rise above every neighborhood. A banner at an important intersection reminds the passing traffic, in Arabic and English, "Don't Forget Kuwait's Missing POWs."

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In