08 MAY 2019: Following last summer’s long overdue social advancement to allow women to drive, Saudi Arabia has taken another step by allowing a woman to take part in the sacred sport of camel racing. The kingdom’s first female camel owner “entered the history books” by having one of her camels compete in the recent finals of the prestigious King Abdulaziz Camel Festival. This follows another “first” – when a woman won a blue ribbon in the festival’s camel beauty pageant (for the camel!).

Yes, the trailblazing women were both Saudi royals – Princess Jamila bint Abdulmajeed bin Saud bin Abdulaziz and Princess Sirene bint Abdul Rahman bin Khalid al-Saud respectively; nevertheless, Shaikh Fahd bin Falah bin Hithleen, Chairman of the Saudi Camel Club, congratulated the former (on Twitter) for pioneering the introduction of Saudi women into the “world of camels.”

(Discouragingly, it should be noted that on April 4 Saudi Arabia detained eight people, including a pregnant woman, who were said to be supporters of women’s rights in the Kingdom; there are also currently nearly a dozen activists awaiting trial on similar charges, according to the Globe and Mail).

As for the camel connection, it’s a social elevation not to be discounted: such is the stature of camels in the kingdom that the final of the six-week festival near Riyadh – arguably the most important in the world, boasting 550 camel owners with 23,500 camels – was attended by Saudi King Salman, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and a host of local and regional dignitaries.

And while present-day camel racing no longer involves actual jockeys on camelback – robotic units are attached to the camels, which are controlled by their handlers using remote controls as they circle the course in SUVs – camel culture is a source of Arabian folklore and considered a reflection of the history and culture of Saudi Arabia, not to mention an important source of tourism.

This year’s festival attracted 40 ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions, who toured venues such as Camel Village, the Desert Park and various pavilions, as well as paying a visit to the World of Nomads event, which showcases the histories and cultures of nomadic peoples from more than 75 countries.

At the same time, a new body dedicated to camel culture was introduced. To be headquartered in Riyad, the International Camel Organization boasts the lofty ambition of promoting “the role of camels in world history, their role in the cultural heritage of many countries and the importance of nurturing camels and supporting those who dedicate themselves to taking care of camels.”

Just a few of the rather lengthy list of the camel-inspired goals of the ICO include:

• Ensuring that camels and camel-related activities nurture mutual understanding, friendship and community-building;

• Promoting good relations with Arab, regional, continental and international organizations, institutions, committees and associations, and non-governmental organizations specialized in camels;

• Ensuring fair competition and raising awareness about the harmful effects of stimulants on camels;

• Establishing research centres and provide technical expertise as well as research grants in various fields relating to camels in order to enrich cultural and scientific knowledge in the field on a global scale

And perhaps the most important: “Promoting and developing the moral, scientific, technical and basic skills needed to study and nurture camels.”

With such obvious dedication to the cause, it is hard not to conclude that things are clearly looking up for camels in Saudi Arabia.

Women can only hope for them too.

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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