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Monday, April 23, 2012

Camel racing in Qatar: say aloha to Doha

By Nigel Thompson
Nigel Thompson visits the big-spending gulf state that's hosting the 2022 World Cup and finds camels races, skyscrapers and hospitals for falcons

Doha skyline at dusk: there are 300 more skyscrapers planned by 2018
Doha skyline at dusk: there are 300 more skyscrapers planned by 2018
Camel racing in the desert gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “jockeying for position” – because there aren’t any jockeys. Well, not human ones anyway.
Yes, in the 21st Century world of the dromedary derby in Qatar the ships of the desert have robot riders.
Trust me, the sight of a thundering herd of camels with 1ft high “jockeys” on their humps is quite extraordinary.
And then it gets even weirder. For the mechanical versions of Tony McCoy are controlled by trainers being driven in 4x4s alongside the five-mile track just outside the Gulf nation’s capital Doha, barking orders on walkie talkies and pressing the “whip” button every so often.

Camel racing features robot jockeys
In a break from tradition, modern camel racing features robot jockeys

Mixed in with this careering convoy are race fans in their vehicles and the odd tour bus, mine included.
It is, quite literally, Carry On Follow That Camel.
Accidents are not at all unknown – the numerous dents in the cars are a clue. And I did think at one point that the car alongside my bus was going to hit us.
And the reason for robots? The traditional riders – the Real McCoys, you might say – were small boys, and there were concerns about their welfare. So the Qatari authorities replaced them with Mechanical McCoys. Betting is not allowed in Qatar but it’s enough of a thrill just watching it.
However, there is prize money for the winning owner and they get a brand new car to drive away at the end of the race. Presumably to replace the one dented in the crazy camel convoy.
Top racing camels – incidentally females are best – become superstars here and cost an awful lot of money.
But then in gas- and oil-rich Qatar there IS an awful lot of money. Indeed, rich simply doesn’t cover it.
You only have to drive around Doha to appreciate what money can buy. And an awful lot of money can buy an awful lot.
My guide Jamal was a fount of knowledge on all things Qatari and a constant source of mind-boggling facts.
Considering I’d been down the road in hardly-impoverished Abu Dhabi recently I didn’t think my mind could be more boggled. But Qatar’s spending leaves you in a stupefied numbness of big numbers.
For starters there was the casual way Jamal talked about the 300 (yes, 300!) skyscrapers planned for Doha by 2018.
Already scores are in place and when you see some of the fantastic structures it looks like some whizzkid architect was given a blank cheque and told: “Go and design something interesting. Feel free to impress us.” Hence why there’s one shaped like a tornado and another like an upright Zeppelin with a spike on top. My tour with Jamal also took in the £1.6billion Pearl project, where developers are building a huge artificial island in the Gulf, with homes for 48,000 people, a marina, shops, restaurants, supercar showrooms and the like.
To put the whole shebang in context there’s an exhibition centre at the project with an enormous model of it all. That fancy train set cost “a few million dollars” alone I was told.
Jamal wasn’t about to stop impressing me and there was a chance to see the Katara Cultural Village, with its marble amphitheatre, opulent opera house and plush theatre.
Naturally, there’s a fancy model of the future plans which include a huge hotel, office and shopping mall complex in the style of a mosque. In the air too the splurge continues apace with a new airport due to open in Doha later this year and the impressive national airline Qatar is taking delivery of a new plane every 15 days in 2012.
Next up, after passing the HQ of TV channel Al Jazeera, was a visit to the Museum of Islamic Art, a must see on any visit to Doha.
Inside there is one of the world’s greatest collections of Muslim manuscripts, textiles, military artifacts and ceramics from across the centuries.
With items from Moorish Spain to Samarkand on the Silk Road, it’s a mesmerising display.
Enough of beautiful art and on to the beautiful game, as Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup and part of the reason for my visit was to see what fans might expect. Twelve stadiums will be used – I saw the Al-Rayyan and Khalifa ones – and after it’s over several will be dismantled and donated to African nations. Now there are all sorts of arguments about giving the World Cup to a nation where summertime temperatures can nudge 50C.

The Khalifa Stadium
The Khalifa Stadium: one of the venues for World Cup 2022

The Qataris point out that the stadiums will be air-conditioned (most of them will be eco-friendly using solar power) but I think it’s more about the fans milling about before and after the match.
And what can supporters expect in terms of pre- and post-match refreshment?
While Qatar is Muslim, it is not dry. Alcohol is available in hotels and some restaurants but is expensive – think in terms of £8 for a beer and £32 for the cheapest bottle of wine. Add 10 years of inflation to that and if fans are drowning their sorrows or celebrating a win it might be one beer and five straws.
No visit to a desert nation is complete without a spot of dune bashing in a 4x4.
I headed past oil refineries the size of small towns to an area close to the Saudi Arabia border where expert driver Shah showed off his skills charging up, down and across steep dunes.
Great fun and rounded off by an ­excellent Arab meal in a tented village in the desert (full-day desert trip with BBQ dinner costs £69).
At some point during the tournament no doubt fans will end up visiting the Doha souk.

Doha souk
At Doha souk, fans will find spices, pashmina shops and other curiosities

It’s perfectly pleasant with restaurants, spice and pashmina shops and so forth plus oddities such as stalls selling chicks dyed pink, green and blue (they were, of course, going cheap).
However, it was falcon shops that caught my eye.
The Gulf nations have a long tradition of hunting with falcons and clearly you need falcon shops (surprisingly, falcon shops don’t have hawkers outside).
Falcons, unlike dyed chicks, don’t come cheap though, with the top birds costing up to £2million.
The birds can get sick or injured and close by the shops is a falcon hospital.
Yes, there’s a falcon waiting room, with perches, an operating theatre and various recovery wards.
The hospital’s sign made interesting reading too.
Who knew the Falcon Imping Ward was where falcons get new feathers to replace damaged ones?
Mind you, I did wonder if I’d need to find a human hospital with a ward that specialised in neck strain.
Because I’d spent so much time in Qatar shaking my head in disbelief...

Nigel inspects the paddock at the camel race in Qatar
Nigel inspects the paddock at the camel race in Qatar
Camel facts
1. Camels come in white, black and beige, with the latter the result of crossbreeding between the other two.
2. They have good memories. If someone hits one it will remember and seek revenge – even up to 12 years later.
3. The animals are shy and do not like to be watched while they are mating.
Best beds, buffets and beaches
Doha has some excellent hotels with more on the way. Mine was the Grand Hyatt, which is close to the Pearl site with good leisure facilities and a nice beach.