New Internationalist

Riding for their lives

July 2005

Daoud Khan’s photo essay on the use of children as camel-racing jockeys in the United Arab Emirates

Daoud Khan
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.

Daoud Khan
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

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

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

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

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

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

This column was published in the July 2005 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Mozah 17 Oct 10

    Someone has to do something about all this barbarities!!. We all should work together and help to prevent cruelty in these children. Ours children are a blessing from God witch is Ala. What is wrong with this UAE people? Are these arabs in UAE are muslin? why they don't practice what they preach?

  2. #2 Mhaajr 26 Jan 11

    whatever it is says here not 100% correct .. just junk and crap ..

    excuse my first line .. we got jockeys long time ago .. and all the people around us got either one or two and sometime three ... they treated them with love and respact for their ages and they please them with clothes,food, toys, money and sometime schools and I know SO many people who did the same ..

    AND RIGHT NOW ... everyone look at US that we are abusing them !!????

    GOD what's the hello wrong with you PEOPLE ..

    Millions of children around the world are dying out of hunger .. and NO ONE cares .. and when they find a place to live .. work to do which is once or twice a week and got so many things back .. everyone jump and say we are abusing them or we are killing them ..


    and see by yourselves whats going there ..

    right now so many children in Pakistan .. and other country are dying because they don't find any food or the right treatment...

    wish this crap above removed because it is not TRUE AT ALL ...

    please people DONT EVER believe all whatever it is says in NEWS or Websites or NEWSPAPERS until you search for the TRUTH by yourselves

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This article was originally published in issue 380

New Internationalist Magazine issue 380
Issue 380

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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