Camels have long played an important role in many aspects of desert life. They’re used as transportation, food, the focus of festivals, and—in the case of the centuries old practice of camel racing—entertainment.
The camels, one-humped dromedaries, used in these races can reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour along designated tracks. They’re expensive to own, and no betting is allowed during the races, so the events are often watched only by people who have skin in the game, including sheikhs, handlers, and owners. While some fans watch races on TV, others drive alongside the animals, controlling robot jockeys and urging their camels to go faster.
The robots rose in popularity in recent years, partly due to the age requirements for jockeys that were enacted after investigators uncovered a decades-long system of child smuggling and slavery within the racing community. The children, often taken from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan, were targeted for their extremely small size. It’s thought that, at one point, there were tens of thousands of enslaved children forced into the dangerous sport.
After the discovery, international pressure prompted the United Arab Emirates to ban child jockeys in the early 2000s, and Oman—the location of the above video—followed suit in 2005. Still, evidence of the practice surfaced again in 2010.
Now, many owners are using the lightweight, efficient robots as jockeys—some even wrapped in silks to look like humans.