The Emirati traditions of a bygone era are brought to life time and again through the nation’s love of heritage sports
The UAE is a country with proud ties to its national heritage. Reminders of tradition are everywhere, from architecture inspired by the courtyards of old to modern markets that nod to authentic souk experiences. Perhaps, it’s partly because the region has evolved and grown so rapidly – from Bedouin settlement to global metropolis in a matter of just a few decades – but the past seems ever present and keenly preserved. A modern love of traditional Emirati sports and pastimes, such as camel racing and falconry, is an integral part of the national identity. So much so that these animals have become symbolic of the region itself.
In fact, one of the key events during the country’s National Day celebrations is the National Day Camel Marathon, which sees these beloved ‘ships of the desert’ race across a testing distance of 25 kilometres. The annual event, which is overseen by the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Center, an organisation dedicated to safeguarding the cultural heritage of the UAE and the Dubai Camel Racing Club, attracts more than 100 competitors every year.
Camel racing is a decades’ old sport but it has changed significantly in recent years. Previously, children played the role of jockeys, thanks to their light weight. But nowadays, for their safety, they have been replaced by robot jockeys operated by competitors who drive alongside the racing camels, usually in an SUV, to spur them on to even greater speeds. It’s a high-stakes race and the winners can claim a purse worth tens of thousands of dirhams. Despite these advances to the sport, one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is how cherished these creatures are.
There is even a story in the Qur’an about the camel being a gift from the creator. When Bedouin tribes first roamed the UAE desert, they were largely dependent on camels for their survival. The animals provided transport across the unforgiving dunes and the tribes consumed their meat and milk while also using their wool to make clothes and tents. Today, no desert safari experience is complete without a camel trek across the dunes, giving guests a taste of this practice.
Falconry is another contemporary Middle Eastern activity that has its roots deep in the past. Like camels, falcons were essential to the survival of the region’s Bedouin tribes, mainly as they were used for hunting food. These days, falconers still take great pride in their ability to work with these wild birds and many UAE adventure tours incorporate falconry into their activities. For an unforgettable encounter, Platinum Heritage organises hot air balloon trips over the desert with a unique falconry experience. The birds – peregrine falcons – are trained to fly alongside the balloon, offering a world’s first in the sport. Additionally, each year, hundreds of falconry enthusiasts from all over the world visit Abu Dhabi for the International Festival of Falconry.
Like camels and falcons, Arabian horses are also highly revered in the region and equestrian sports are very popular. These striking indigenous creatures are famous worldwide for their beauty, temperament and speed. For many years, endurance racing was the equestrian sport of choice in the region, a challenging event that would see horse and rider tested over immense distances across the desert dunes.
Over the last decade, the Dubai World Cup has established itself as one of the premium horse racing events in the region and one of the richest in the world. Last year, Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum stated that the total purse prize for the annual event would be increased to US$35 million (around AED128 million).
While many of the Bedouin traditions have their origins in the desert, there are inextricable links between the UAE’s history and the sea. Dhow sailing and dhow racing are two national sports inspired by the region’s maritime heritage. They nod to the rich history of fishing, pearl diving and trading. Sailing these traditional boats is a skill passed down through generations.
The Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club hosts regular dhow races throughout the year and there’s nothing quite like the sight of the billowing white sails on the blue water, set against the backdrop of the city’s skyscrapers.