Not long after sunrise, a camel race kicked off in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, 115 kilometers (71 miles) east of Cairo. About 150 camels pressed their noses against a metal barrier before receiving a signal from a man wearing a white galabiya, or traditional robe, to move forward.
Amin Sharaawy, general coordinator of the International Camel Racing Festival, said the race has climbed the international ladder and has started to attract attendees from all over the world.
“There is also ongoing coordination with a large number of countries to expand the international participation in the festival in the coming years,” Sharaawy said.
Though the race’s financial prizes amounted to a meager 100,000 Egyptian pounds (around $5,500), competition among the Bedouin tribes was in full swing.
The race also included evening functions organized by a number of poets from Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Organizers of this year’s event hope that camel racing will gain more international recognition and attract additional enthusiasts from all over the world.
Essam Attia, general coordinator of tournaments and festivals at the Egyptian Camel Federation, said that European countries took part for the first time in this year’s race alongside Arab and African countries.
“The European participation comes as part of efforts to promote the camel racing sport across the world as well as boost the country’s tourism, as many tourists love to attend such culture-specific races,” Attia said.
Ismailia Gov. Yassin Taha said that European participation in the festival is proof of the event’s progress. “It also delivers a message to the world that Egypt will always be an oasis for security and safety [and] will always welcome guests from all over the world,” he said.
Tourism experts say that such festivals and races provide a major boost to Egypt’s tourism industry, which has suffered since the downing of a Russian plane in the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015.
“Such festivals and races are culture-specific and tell a lot about the traditions of a certain part in the country,” tourism expert Adel Salah Nagi said, adding that many of the tourists interested in camel races are rich, which can increase tourism revenue.
Nagi said that the government has to continue supporting these festivals because they can bring in huge profits, reinvigorate the country’s staggering tourism sector and boost the national economy.
The International Camel Racing Festival was the first camel race held in Egypt this year after two camel races were postponed in Aswan and Nuweiba. The festival has been held annually in Ismailia since the 1990s, with a brief pause following the January 25 Revolution, only to be revived in March 2014.
Some international organizations have condemned the participation of children in such races.
In a first in the Arab world, the United Arab Emirates introduced robot jockeys to replace human jockeys due to criticism over abuses of children’s rights. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have banned the use of human jockeys in favor of robots since 2005.
Camel racing has been part of Arabian culture for many years, with some historians dating races back to the seventh century. Camels were viewed as magnificent creatures, and racing is seen as a unifying activity, a sport that brings together people of all backgrounds.
“It is a special kind of sport, and promoting it can be a robust addition to the country,” Nagi said.