SHAHEEN stretched out on the sand and closed his eyes, but there was little time to rest for the camel. World Cup fans coming in droves to the desert outside Doha were ready for their perfect Instagram moment: riding a camel on the rolling dunes.
As Qatar welcomes more than a million fans for the month-long World Cup, even its camels are working overtime. Visitors in numbers the tiny emirate has never before seen are rushing to finish a bucket list of Gulf tourist experiences between games: ride on a camel’s back, take pictures with falcons and wander through the alleyways of traditional markets.
On a recent Friday afternoon, hundreds of visitors in soccer uniforms or draped in flags waited for their turn to mount the humpbacked animals. Camels that did not rise were forced up by their handlers.
When one camel let out a loud grunt, a woman from Australia shrieked, “it sounds like they’re being violated!” Nearby, a group of men from Mexico dressed in white Qatari thobes and headdresses took selfies.
“It’s really an amazing feeling because you feel so tall,” 28-year-old Juan Gaul said after his ride. The Argentine fan was visiting Qatar for a week from Australia.
Cashing in on the opportunity are the animals’ handlers who, thanks to the World Cup, are making several times more than they normally would.
“There’s a lot of money coming in,” said Ali Jaber al Ali, a 49 year-old Bedouin camel herder from Sudan. “Thank god, but it’s a lot of pressure.”
Al Ali came to Qatar 15 years ago but has worked with camels since he was a child. On an average weekday before the World Cup, Al Ali said his company would offer around 20 rides per day and 50 on weekends. Since the World Cup started, Al Ali and the men he works with are providing 500 rides in the morning and another 500 in the evening. The company went from having 15 camels to 60, he said.
“Tour guides want to move things fast,” Al Ali said, “so they add pressure on us.”
As crowds formed around them, many camels sat statue-like with cloth muzzles covering their mouths and bright saddles on their bodies. The smell of dung filled the air.
Like other Gulf cultures, camels once provided Qataris a vital form of transport and helped in the exploration and development of trade routes.
Today, the “ships of the desert” figure into cultural pastimes: camel racing is a popular sport that takes place on old-school tracks outside the city. — AP