Camel law gives racegoers the hump

SOMETHING strange has happened at the Ned el-shibba racetrack in Dubai this season: the camels are running much more slowly. One even changed its mind halfway through a race and turned back.

An air of disappointment envelopes the wealthy Arabs in the grandstand and their camel managers driving along in Range Rovers, shouting instructions into their walkie- talkies. The slim, dark boys in their jockeys' white crash- helmets seem to hail from a different century from the frightened infants of last season. Some of them used to be as young as six. Their ear-piercing shrieks sent the camels into a slobbering panic, ensuring their completion of the race.

This season, the jockeys are heavier, older and less frightened, in order to comply with the United Arab Emirates' strict new law, passed in September, to protect the boys who traditionally come from destitute families all over the Indian subcontinent.

For the first time in 18 years, since the ancient Bedouin pastime of camel racing turned into an industry generating millions of dollars, the law specifies the minimum age, height and weight of the jockeys, who must also wear crash helmets. The changes were introduced in response to claims in the Western media by poverty-stricken Bangladeshi villagers that their children had been kidnapped by gangs and sold as camel jockeys.

In June, police in the UAE, India and Bangladesh joined forces to smash a ring trading in the child jockeys. The UAE government intervened last year when a group of jockeys beat to death a seven-year-old Bangladeshi rival, who they considered to be a threat to their livelihoods. The incident was described by some local health officials and Western diplomats as 'one of the worst examples of child exploitation and the barbaric treatment of young boys' by the managers and trainers.

Innovations over the past few years exacerbated the children's plight. For example, a camel will instinctively try to throw off its shrieking young rider - so the managers came up with the idea of attaching the boys to pads on the camels' backs with Velcro sewn into the seats of their pants; and radio receivers were pinned to the boys' chests through which the owners and trainers would shout advice in primitive Urdu during the race.

'Camel owners and trainers have no choice but to stick to the new rules,' said a Ministry of Health official. 'Tens of thousands of dollars of prize money are at stake if they are banned from racing.'

(Photograph omitted)