© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

In this installment, retired Aramcon Mark Lowey reminisces about a memorable day in Kuwait in 1988, during a period when he was employed by the Kuwait National Petroleum Company. He and his wife, Ann, resided in Kuwait from 1985-1988.

Al Ahmadi Racetrack

On a blustery, overcast day in early Spring 1988, a friend and I spent our Friday day-off work at the camel races on the outskirts of Al Ahmadi, near the small residential community for employees of the Kuwait Oil Company.

From the southern coastal neighborhood of Fahaheel where we lived, we drove thirty minutes inland to just beyond Al Ahmadi and into the open desert. Over a set of small sand dunes, a dusty racetrack emerged in the distance. It had a 10-kilometer oval track of compacted sand, and on one side, near the finish line, were simple steel bleachers for spectators.

Framed by a tall, pale blue steel gate topped with two decorative metal horses under a fluttering Kuwait flag, the official-looking entrance gate to the fenced-in racetrack bore the Arabic inscription, “Ahmadi Governate Archery and Equestrian Association.”

The contestants, lithe and sinewy racing camels with their mounted jockeys, were already mustering just outside the gate. Spectators in the grandstands eagerly anticipated the start of the race.

The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
Camels and jockeys gather near the entrance to the racetrack. © Mark Lowey.
The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
Camel jockeys, ranging in age from roughly 8 to 20, prepare to race. © Mark Lowey.
The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
A jockey and his camel whip. © Mark Lowey.
The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
Young spectators anticipate the start of the race.
(Pictured are Salah, Harbi, Mashari, Muhammad and Badr.) © Mark Lowey.

Before the Race Photo Gallery

The History of Camel Racing

Camel racing on the Arabian Peninsula, the native habitat of the dromedary (one-humped camel), can be traced to at least the early Islamic period in the 7th century AD. Along with horse racing, camel racing has long been a folk sport practiced by Arabs at social gatherings and festivals. In the mid-20th century, camel racing began to be organized as a formal sport. Rules and regulations were established, and camel racing’s popularity spread to Africa, India and Australia.

In the Arab countries of the Middle East the sport became extremely popular, spawning its own training, breeding, and research industries. Camels are now specially raised for the track, using carefully controlled methods of breeding, training, and nutrition. A well-bred racing camel with an excellent track record can sell for a high price, often in the millions of dollars.

A camel is slower than a racehorse in a sprint but camels have greater endurance and can maintain a speed of 40 km/h (25 mph) for an hour. [1]

Child Jockeys Banned - Replaced by Robots

Historically, camels were controlled by child jockeys, but allegations of human rights abuses led to worldwide bans on underage labor. In modern camel racing, camels are controlled by remote-operated robotic whips. In 2002, the United Arab Emirates was the first to ban the use of child jockeys under the age of 15, followed by Qatar in 2005. [2] [3]

Robot jockeys comprise a modified electric drill, a small audio speaker and a plastic sheath wrapped in cotton that becomes the robot’s whip.

At the start of a race, the camels break into a run as the gate is lifted. Simultaneously, a fleet of SUV’s takes off after them alongside the racetrack, with each camel’s owner riding in the passenger seat so that he can clearly see his animal. Using a remote-control key fob (like those used to operate a car) and a walkie-talkie, the owner can give voice commands and steer and whip the camel when appropriate.

The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
Modern-day racing camels, with robotic jockeys, at the Kuwait Camel Racing Club in 2019. (Photo courtesy of adventurerfamily.com)

Back to 1988 - The Race Begins

The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
March 11, 1988: And they’re off! © Mark Lowey.

In a chaotic jumble of jostling camels and jockeys, the race began. The faster animals soon distanced themselves as the pack spread out. For the next eight minutes, or so, racers galloped down the back stretch on the far side of the track as they headed for the final curve.

A pickup truck, mounted with elevated seats in the bed for judges and a camera man, kept pace with the leaders on a dirt path just inside the rail.

Start of the Race Photo Gallery

Confusion on The Home Stretch

Around 50 meters from the finish line and just beyond the blue entrance gate, several of the lead camels inexplicably ignored their jockeys and turned away from the finish line. They were heading for the gate. Did their homing instincts kick in at the wrong time? Did the leader stray and the others followed? Were they tired, thirsty, and determined to end the race right then?

Perhaps not for the first time, a knowledgeable racetrack attendant appeared out of nowhere and, equipped with a stout camel stick, managed to redirect the leaders in the correct direction. The stragglers were back on course, but they had wasted valuable time. Others took the opportunity to pass them up.

The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
Rounding the final turn. © Mark Lowey.
The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
The leaders go astray at the last minute. © Mark Lowey.
The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
A racetrack attendant encourages the racers to get back on course. © Mark Lowey.

Home Stretch Photo Gallery

The Exciting Finish

Frothing at the mouth with white, foamy saliva and with their riders franticly whipping their hind quarters, the camels crossed the finish line. The appreciative crowd cheered as they passed the grandstands. The camels and jockeys had performed well, and a new winner was crowned that day.

The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
Galloping down the home stretch. © Mark Lowey.
The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
Racing towards the finish line. © Mark Lowey.
The Camel Races of Kuwait – A Photo Essay
The Winner! © Mark Lowey.

The Finish Photo Gallery

Kuwait Racing Today

These days camel racing takes place every Saturday from October to April. The races start around 1 p.m. and continue for two or three hours. Additionally, the club stages a week-long camel racing festival in February of each year. During the week-long festival, six to eight preliminary races are run each day and the grand final takes place on the last day. In a casual, family-friendly atmosphere, camel rides are offered, and the club house provides free food to all.

The venue has been relocated approximately 20 kilometers west of Ahmadi and renamed the Kuwait Camel Racing Club. Call +965 2539 4015 for schedule information. Admission is free of charge.

Endnotes / Credits:

[1] Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/sports/camel-racing (2005)

[2] Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_jockey#cite_note-3

[3] In researching this article, I found no references to the mistreatment of jockeys in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

Mark Lowey
Mark Lowey in Kuwait in 1988.

About the Author: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Email: moloworking1@gmail.com