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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

by Cullen Murphy

(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

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Vacations in the Sahara," by William Langewiesche (November, 1993)
Trackless sands, trusty camels, and a trove of prehistoric art.

Related links:

Camel Racing
Photos of camel races posted at a United Arab Emirates tourist site.

Camels...the Ships of the desert
A brief introduction to the sport of camel racing, with photos. Posted by The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

Dubai Online
News, general information about Dubai's culture and history, events listings, and a guide to restaurants, hotels, and local attractions.

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."

The camel track lies on the outskirts of Dubai, at a place called Nad al Sheba, and during the racing season the green, red, white, and black national flag of the Emirates flutters atop high poles that line the road leading out from town. The races take place on a vast oval more than six miles around. In Saudi Arabia the races may go twice as far. Camels are not as fast as racehorses, but they have a lot more stamina -- they start out at about forty miles an hour, and can hold a pace of twenty miles an hour for more than half an hour. They have been known to run at ten miles an hour for eighteen hours. The designation dromedarius has nothing to do with humps -- it comes from the Greek word for "running." If the Greek were more candid, it would mean "running with a loopy gait while maintaining an expression of haughty insouciance."

During a race, in which fifty or more camels may compete, trainers and owners in jeeps speed around the inside of the track, talking with their jockeys by radio. The jockeys are helmeted boys, each riding behind his camel's hump and wielding a riding crop the length of a fishing rod. (Because weight makes a difference, the age of jockeys has been an issue for years in some parts of the camel-racing world; in Dubai the minimum weight was officially set not long ago at about 100 pounds, and authorities have cracked down on offenders in several highly publicized recent cases.) I watched scores of jockeys at play one afternoon as a dusky blood-orange sun hovered above the sands and turned the boys into lines of flickering shadow that seemed to stretch to the horizon. Behind them camels by the hundreds were led by trainers from the racetrack to the far stables, diminishing ultimately into little more than silhouetted flecks of movement. Looking at the sky, I would not have been surprised to see the words "A David Lean Production."

Camel racing has always been a Bedouin pastime. But only during the past twenty years or so has it become a highly organized activity -- the Sport of Sheikhs, as it might be called, with large investments in bloodlines and facilities. In the 1990s a dozen new camel racetracks have been built in the Emirates alone. During the month of March camel racing is to Arabian television what basketball is to American. The grandstand at Nad al Sheba, under its tentlike canopy, resembles a diminutive Denver airport. It is set among date palms on a manicured lawn that covers the desert like a putting green. The crowd at a camel race is diverse: members of the ruling family are thrown together with laborers from Pakistan and Britons in blue blazers. No betting is permitted, because Islam frowns on gambling. But a lottery dispenses door prizes among the spectators, and the prizes carry the names Lexus and Range Rover. At Nad al Sheba the morning races are primarily for camels owned by sheikhs and the afternoon races are reserved for everyone else. A Bedouin's dream is to win one of these afternoon races and sell the victorious camel to a sheikh on the spot.

The intense interest in camel racing in the Emirates is not so much about money as about cultural heritage. The traditional Bedouin way of life is verging on extinction, but the animal at its heart can still be exalted. It is difficult to overestimate the centrality of the camel in the Arab imagination. The Koran praises the horse and the sheep, but then comments pointedly, "The Almighty in making animals created nothing preferable to the camel." Speakers of Arabic have many words to express every refinement of the cameloid condition. Dhaqun, for instance, refers to "a she-camel that relaxes her chin so as to make her lower lip hang down while going along." Four-wheel drive has supplanted the camel's traditional function as a means of conveyance; nowadays you'll often see camels themselves being driven around in trucks. But people continue to hold camels in the highest esteem.

Inevitably, the fires of cultural nationalism have been fanned by the simoon of competition. The camel-racing sheikhs have ample resources, and they have sunk vast sums into the buying and training of camels. There are some 14,000 active racing camels in the Emirates. The sheikhs have built special treadmills and swimming pools to give the animals exercise. They have experimented with dietary supplements. They have mounted attacks on trypanosomosis and camel pox. They have hired physiologists, nutritionists, even psychologists. And, of course, they have begun to think about improving the racing stock, through scientific breeding programs and careful attention to pedigree.

Here the devotees of modern camel racing have faced a challenge. Think of the issue as a problem in mathematics. A thoroughbred racehorse starts competition at the age of two, and its career may be pretty well over by the age of four or five. It can begin life as a dam or a sire very early, and the track records of its progeny will be known within a few years -- as will the track records of their progeny, and their progeny's progeny, and so on.

With camels each step in this process is more time-consuming. A camel is not mature enough to start racing until the age of five or six, and its competitive abilities are not known until the age of six or seven. Scientific breeding can then start, but it will be another seven or eight years before the careers of the camel's first offspring can be evaluated.

Moreover, there won't be all that many offspring. In horse breeding a successful stallion can sire fifty to eighty foals a year, and may go to its grave with a thousand living descendants. But the preferred racing camels are female; the males are relatively ill-tempered and difficult to deal with. Each pregnancy lasts thirteen months, and in a typical reproductive lifetime of twenty years a camel may bear no more than about twelve calves. Here's an added element of torment for breeders: a camel's racing life potentially extends for many years beyond its reproductive maturity, and each pregnancy means the loss of more than a year of competition by what may be one of the fastest racing camels in Arabia.

There would be no way around these problems if the rules of thoroughbred horse racing applied to camels. Thoroughbreds must be conceived and brought to term the natural way -- no shortcuts allowed, however enticing the options offered today by artificial insemination, embryo transfer, and other reproductive technologies. The traditionalism of thoroughbred breeding underlies the lucrative system of stud farms and the global cycling of prime stallions, who chase the hemispheric springtime from north to south, and in a good year may cover scores of mares apiece. But there is no Jockey Club in camel racing to lay down this kind of law, and there is plenty of money for science.


The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts two and three.

Cullen Murphy is the author of The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (1998).

Illustrations by Jack Unruh. Some of the illustrations in this article are based on photographs by Florine de Haas van Dorsser.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Lulu, Queen of the Camels - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 72-82.