Camel racing in Egypt dates back to 1992, but the country now strives to take this sport to a new level through international races and the use of robots that replace the child jockeys.
Last month, the Egyptian authorities announced the inauguration of the first camel racetrack in Egypt, hoping it would contribute to the country's ailing tourism sector.
The new track opened a month after a major camel race took place in the city of Ismailia, north of Cairo, where remote-controlled robot jockeys were used. The move aims to curb criticism on the suffering of children who often have to leave their families in order to train and compete in camel racing.
Head of the Egyptian Camel Racing Federation Eid al-Muzaini told Al-Monitor that the federation plans to stop the use of jockeys in the races within a year, except for a small number of adults in order to preserve the tradition.
Starting in 2002, several Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have banned child jockeys in this traditional Bedouin sport, after rights groups criticized the practice.
“The camel races highlight the Arab culture and traditions and can only be experienced in Arab countries,” Hossam Akawy, a member of the Red Sea Tourism Investment Association, told Al-Monitor.
Akawy noted that although Egypt faces fierce competition from neighboring Gulf states in this sport, it is making great strides in the field.
The inauguration April 25 of the camel racetrack in Sharm el-Sheikh by Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly coincided with the celebrations marking the 37th anniversary of the liberation of the Sinai Peninsula.
Khaled Fouda, the governor of southern Sinai, told local media that the racetrack was established in accordance with international standards to attract Arabs, foreigners and those interested in Arab heritage activities. He said the racetrack cost 100 million Egyptian pounds ($5.8 million). The state contributed 25 million Egyptian pounds ($1.45 million) and businessmen funded the rest.
The track, the governor noted, is built on 941 acres and has a length of 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) that is suitable for amateur and professional camel racing. It has an elevator and parking for about 200 cars.
Fouda added that the racetrack has a state-of-the-art control room and that the camels are fitted with a GPS tracking device that registers the distance they have traveled and their location on the track.
"The Bedouins enjoy taking part in these festivals and see it as a day out, and Egypt should cultivate these cultural events in order to increase revenues," Gazi Saad, a member of parliament from northern Sinai, told Al-Monitor.
He noted, "Camels are traditionally regarded as companions to every Bedouin. They were used to transport supplies and for travel. Today tribesmen gather at camel racing festivals to revive an old heritage that celebrates the value of camels.”
Saad added that a bright future awaits the camel sport in Egypt and that the state seeks to develop it to revive the tourism sector and the national economy.
“Although camel races in Egypt take place in desert areas, organized by different Bedouin tribes, thousands of citizens attend them every year to enjoy the atmosphere,” Muzaini told Al-Monitor.
Camel racing in Egypt officially began in 1992, and the first camel race was held in el-Arish, northern Sinai. The Ministry of Youth and Sports recognizes camel racing as an official sport as part of its activities. Each of the governorates of Sinai, Matrouh, Sharqiya, Ismailia, Suez, Upper Egypt and the Red Sea has its own club that bears the name of the region in which it is located. There are currently 11 clubs that organize camel races in Egypt, Muzaini said.
Ahmed el-Shami, an economist and professor of feasibility studies at Ain Shams University, said that camel races could be a major source of income for the state as they could attract thousands of tourists every year.
“With the introduction of robot jockeys and advanced technology in camel racing in Egypt, I believe that the camel races would generate revenues from both tourists who would come to the races as well as from locals interested in the sport,” he told Al-Monitor.