Death in Dubai

Every year, scores of kidnapped children are smuggled from South Asia to the Middle East where they are maimed and killed, all for the amusement of the oil-rich rulers of kingdoms on the camel racing circuit

By Ron Gluckman/Dubai, UAE

ONE OF THE WORLD'S TOP JOCKEYS poses for a photo by the track. His smile says it all. Two front teeth are missing. Raji Shubir ranks with the youngest champions of the race course.

The six-year-old tyke has won scores of trophies. Yet he claims no secret skills. His success stems from two factors known well by the local press and punters. The tiny Indian child is the lightest on the track. And he's always roped to his mount.

The races Raji runs are dangerous brushes with death in the camel pits of Dubai. No riches await young riders like Raji, who are stolen or bought from beggar parents in the slave markets of India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. And fame is a foolish notion. Fans will never see Raji's name in magazines, not even if he is trampled to death during a race or murdered afterwards by jealous child jockeys.

But die they do, kicked to death by camels or killed by rival baby riders. Such is the sad, short life in the fast lane for untold slave children shipped to the camel pits of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Raji, whose name was changed for this article, arrived in Dubai like hundreds of other children from the Asian subcontinent. He was sold by his pauper family to a servant of an Arab lord. Raji slipped through immigration, posing as the child of the Indian servant.

This is typical, according to authorities in India, who smashed several child-selling gangs during the early 1990s. The kids are sold for as little as US$3. Hundreds more are kidnapped, often toddlers as young as two.

UAE immigration and police turn a blind eye to the baby trade that serves the sordid sports of sheiks and sultans of the oil-rich emirates. Even tales of vicious brutality are brushed aside.

A five-year-old rider was beaten to death by other child jockeys last year. But neither he, nor his six-year-old assailants, were mentioned in media or police reports. "This happens often, too often," says a local reporter, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Arab officials maintain the races are a vital link to the nation's Bedouin birthright. "Our interest in camels is not because it is a good sport or because it is economically important to us, but because the camel is part of our heritage, part of the Arab environment," said Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE Defense Minister, at the opening of the first International Camel Symposium in Dubai in February 1992.

Camels, called the "Ships of the Desert," have an indisputable place of prominence in UAE history. A 7,000-year-old camel fossil drawing was found on an island near Abu Dhabi, capital of the seven-state confederation known as the United Arab Emirates.

However, modern camel racing resembles nothing from the past. These desert dwellers once raced camels at festivals and weddings, but they never rode so hard for so long. A camel must be trained for years to maintain the ungainly pace of a race. At full throttle, its legs all kick in different directions, a bizarre sort of bounding that is most abnormal for the animal.

And while camels were the mode of transport long before there was oil for the nation's numerous Mercedes and Land Rovers, few racing camels actually originate in the UAE. Dubai, for instance, has an estimated 50,000 of the world's 14 million camels, but only a fraction are born here. Thousands are imported every year from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Africa. The arrivals of the camels are heralded by local headlines that refer to the "VICs" - Very Important Camels.

The costs are astronomical, even without counting perks or adding expenses. Champion camels can sell for US$500,00 or more.

The stakes are equally high. Betting is banned by the government, which, instead, showers winners with prizes and publicity. The races are covered live by television, and written up in the sports pages of the local dailies. The camels become celebrities. The jockeys, often as young as four, are never mentioned. 

Instead, praise is heaped upon the rich owners of both animals and riders, who claim prizes that include luxury cars, four-wheel-drive trucks, yachts and cash. Last season's finale in April, 1992 featured 15,000 camels and prizes that included over 120 luxury cars and jeeps and US$1.5 million in cash.

Yet participants insist that prizes aren't the appeal of camel racing. "It's a big honor to win," says Khamis Harib, who keeps five camels and has been racing for 20 years. "It's very competitive. If you win, you get your name in the newspaper and on television."

More important than all the cars he has won, Harib says, "If you win, everybody comes to kiss you on the nose."

Long ago, Harib himself was a jockey. "I rode in races when I was five or six," he says through a translator. "But these days, all of them are Indian and Pakistani. For the past three years or so. Before, they were all from Dubai."

There are 15 racetracks throughout the UAE, but nowhere is the sport bigger than in Dubai, which claims two of the six main stadiums, as well as a modern Camel Hospital near the larger of the two, Ned Al Sheba. The season runs from October into April. Races begin at four kilometers, gradually increasing to reach the full 10 kilometers.

The training is grueling, lasting years. Camels are fed a rich diet most likely monitored better than yours or mine. Special factories prepare the grain, with magnet sweeps for metal, and vacuuming of any dirt. Racing camels munch high-nutrition trail mix consisting of milk, dates, honey, barley and clover, sometimes spiked with vitamins. Yet camels often vomit this breakfast before or after the race. Trainers consider that a good sign, indicating a camel that is ready to run.

Camels move at four different speeds, which all involve unique leg patterns. At its fastest, the camel has been clocked at 65 km/h, but not for long. Females can maintain a steady speed of 40 km/h for a full hour, which makes them the more competitive camel.

Fifteen to 20 camels usually participate in each race, but the field grows to six dozen at the close of the season.

Riding camels can be difficult, on or off the race course. The single hump of Arabian camels makes seating a serious quandary. When tourists take short treks, camels are usually kitted with a rope saddle. You try and maintain this perch while holding the rein with one hand and hanging onto the hump with the other.

The bouncing during a race is treacherous. There are stories of children not only being roped to the mounts, but attached with Velcro. It's a dangerous sport. Slipping from the saddle can result in broken bones or being dragged to death.

"Maybe this is why they are using foreign children," says one western worker. "You won't see any Arab children out there."

During random visits to the Dubai track, children from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were all represented, but none from the UAE. The children ran in packs and behaved like standard street urchins. Many were charming as they posed for pictures in between races. All cowered from the trainers.

The tiny riders are kept to a painful pace. As soon as they finish one race, they are pulled from the camels, tossed in vans, and saddled up for the next, which starts within minutes. Jockeys wear the colors of their owners, jogging suits of blue, white, red and green, topped with tiny helmets or headgear. Many are equipped with small radios, so the trainers can signal every swing of the riding crop.

The children scream loudly at the starting line, shrieks of pure terror. This is part of the plan. Their startled cries excite the camels, pushing them to top speeds. Trainers say it is impossible to find Arab children who will scream with such fright at the camels.

As the camels lurch around the sandy track, a convoy of vans follow on a ring road. Video cameras catch the action, which is replayed on television screens mounted on poles in front of the viewing stands.

There are several segregated sections. Sheiks and sultans claim the luxury boxes in the middle, while common folk sit off to the right. The last section is for western guests and gawking tourists.

Tea and tiny sandwiches are served in an environment that reeks of colonialism, all the more startling since Dubai and the other emirates tossed out the British in the 1960s. Still, relations remain close. British nationals are the only visitors who can move with even a mockery of freedom about the UAE. All other visitors must obtain sponsors for visas, even the baby jockeys.

Yet, when child-selling gangs have been busted in India, the investigation never goes beyond the local buyers and sellers. Nobody questions how the kids can clear immigration so easily, when even the global jetset is grounded.

"We believe that the trade can only be stopped if the authorities in the receiving countries take steps to control the issuing of entry visas to children under 18," says Anne Marie Sharman, a spokesperson for Anti-Slavery International, in London. She adds that the group has protested through British diplomatic channels and received assurances that UAE law prohibits children under the age of 11 from racing.

Indeed, Dubai officials, when queried for this story, responded with written statements that the tracks are closely monitored to ensure no children under the age of 11 are involved. However, no riders over the age of eight could be found during several spot checks of the track. "They become too heavy," confided a trainer.

Middle East Watch, the human rights group, has been considering an investigation of violations in the UAE, including those reported in the camel pits. Anti-Slavery International worries about what happens when these children grow too old to race. Local reporters are afraid to probe that matter, as well.

"We're not allowed to print news stories on the races, on what goes on behind the scenes," says one local reporter, blaming strict state control of UAE media. "It's simply too controversial. We can't print anything critical of the government. It's not allowed."

Nor are race officials willing to lift the veil of secrecy for foreign reporters. Repeatedly denied access to the young riders, this reporter walked among them and was immediately accosted by a muscular guard. He twisted my camera gear and threatened arrest until a roll of film of the baby jockeys was surrendered - the first I've lost to a goon anywhere in over a decade of snooping.

"We've had problems before with reporters," explains my guide, apologizing for the rudeness. Not of the races themselves, but my rough treatment. "They just wouldn't understand in the West," he adds.

But in Dubai, the situation is condoned at every level, including the government, from immigration authorities to police. It's more than status quo, it's what happens when society standards are set by the state. In a kingdom ruled by oil, where the media is muffled and everyone sets aside ethics to placate the sheiks and sultans.

Locals accept the races, even if they don't participate. Arabs hold to the heritage line. Those of Indian descent, who might be expected to express outrage, especially since they outnumber Dubai natives by three to one, accept the situation as just another ugly condition of wealth. And westerners are noticeably nervous to broach the subject, especially when notepads are present.

"Besides, this may sound like bad taste," says one western worker, "but the kids probably have a better life here than at home."

Then, he waits for the taste of the statement to settle, and adds: "We all do."

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter based in Hong Kong, who researched this story during a trip to Dubai and several other states of the United Arab Emirates in 1992. This report was soundly criticized by officials in Dubai and across the UAE, as was a widely-shown BBC documentary that followed this report. However, the facts in the story were never repudiated.

In 1993, the UAE announced a ban on child jockeys, but the law is widely ignored. In mid-1999, authorities rescued many children from the camel racing circuit, including one tyke who became a baby jockey after  being smuggled in from Pakistan as a 5-year-old.

Finally, responding to intense international pressure, Dubai and the rest of the Emirates began clearing the camel-tracks of children, replacing them with robot jockeys. Utilizing tiny robotic riders developed in Japan, they began strapping in remote-controlled jockeys in 2007. Partly because the robot riders are expensive, and prestigious, they became widely accepted.

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