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Riding for their lives

United Arab Emirates

A portrait of a diminutive child camel jockey & his camel at the Nad al Sheba camel racetrack, Dubai, UAE.

Daoud Khan

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is widely regarded as one of the most pro-Western countries in the Gulf region. It’s become popular as a venue for an increasing variety of international sporting events. Yet few realize that for nearly 25 years it has also been a centre for the illegal trade in thousands of very young boys, some no more than five years old. They lead brutal, terrified lives employed as child jockeys in the traditional sport of camel-racing. Traffickers bring the boys from areas of desperate poverty in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and India to become disposable riders for an élite sport of sheikhs. Children are preferred as jockeys because they are light in weight, cheap to feed and house and cannot protest their conditions. Camel racing is big business (a top racing camel may be worth as much as $1 million). The sport is also extremely dangerous, with many of these tiny children killed and injured every year.

There are reliable reports of widespread physical and sexual abuse of the children, beatings and systematic food deprivation to reduce weight and growth. The abuse is so widespread in the Gulf region, involving as many as 40,000 children, that it may currently be one of the world’s worst instances of organized child abuse – child cruelty on an industrial scale.

Pressure from Western and Asian NGOs has finally resulted this year in restrictions on the use of child camel jockeys in the UAE. Regulations exist which stipulate camel jockeys must not be younger than 15 years of age or weigh less than 45 kg. In a filmed investigation by the author over a four-month period we discovered that in practice no child is used for racing who weighs more than 25 kg, equivalent to the usual weight of a six-to-nine-year-old. An alarming number of children we encountered on the racetracks were as young as five years old. Instead of enforcing existing legislation, the UAE authorities have banned photography at the racetracks to prevent the continued practice and scale of this child abuse being documented.

hotography is forbidden at Nad al Sheba. Despite CCTV and local television coverage, no ‘outsider’ photography is allowed. Even at tracks where there are no obvious signs, plain clothes and uniformed police enforce this rule with ruthless efficiency, confiscating film, cameras and tapes if need be. Anyone defying the ban risks arrest.

Daoud Khan

Saddam, a Bangladeshi camel jockey, outside his hovel at a desert camel training camp in Umm al Quwain, UAE. Describing his father as ‘that bastard’, Saddam recounted how he was sold to buy alcohol.

Daoud Khan

One of the youngest camel jockeys encountered during the investigation. The distinctive Dubai skyline can be seen in the background. This Pakistani child, probably no more than four or five years of age, wears racing body armour and helmet while working in blistering heat at the Nad al Sheba.

Daoud Khan

8-year-old Pakistani jockey Shakil, in Sheikh Khalifa Hospital, Abu Dhabi. He was filmed during the investigation after he had suffered a fall and serious abdominal injuries during a race.

Daoud Khan

Many deaths of camel jockeys go unreported but the Pakistan Embassy in Abu Dhabi was able to confirm that it was not uncommon to receive reports of casualties. To confirm this I was shown the passport of 5-year-old. Dilshad (left), recently killed on the main race track in Abu Dhabi. He is survived by his brother, (pictured right). I was informed that ‘If a child dies, nobody cares. They give 5,000 or 6,000 dirhams to the agent and that’s it. If there are few camels, 20-25 in a race, no child may die. But if there are 40-50 camels together, they run into each other and hit each other and children fall and die under the camel. It’s not a problem if the child gets hurt. But the camel should not have a scratch.’

Daoud Khan

The Start – child jockeys gallop away from the starting line at one of Dubai’s main racetracks.

Daoud Khan

New Internationalist issue 380 magazine cover This article is from the July 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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