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Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai

In a city known for glittering artifice, some older more traditional Emirati pursuits have remained, evolved or been revived. From camel racing and dhow sailing to falconry and equestrian sports – we take a look at the Arabian activities that offer travellers a chance to get to the heart of Dubai’s local culture.

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai

Many have survived the ages, some are experiencing a revival and one has only just been invented, but all Emirati sports and leisure pursuits have their roots in Bedouin and Arabian Peninsula culture. This heritage is important to the UAE too, with the Sheikh’s Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre organizing the annual Fazza Championships in Dubai to encourage local traditions such as Saktoun rifle shooting, hunting with saluki dogs and falconry, which are little-known outside the region.

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - camel.

From sailing graceful dhows on the Arabian Gulf to racing camels in the desert, the region’s pursuits offer a gateway into Emirati culture and traditions – whether you go to see races and competitions as a spectator, or try them out for yourself. Here’s a guide to the national sports and activities you can get involved in for an authentic trip into the real heart of Dubai.

Camel racing

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - camel racing.

Known as the "ships of the desert", camels have been integral to Emirati life since ancient times and racing them has long been the favoured sport of sheikhs. Today the races continue at events around Dubai, with specially trained camels worth hundreds of thousands of pounds mounted by robot jockeys and running at up to 30mph.

Tourists can get a taste of traditional Emirati culture at Al Marmoum Camel Racetrack in the desert village of Al Lisaili. Off Dubai’s Al Ain road, it is the UAE’s largest course and hosts weekly races during the autumn and winter, usually early on Fridays and Saturdays (the Emirates weekend). There’s a grandstand by the finish line for spectators, while owners drive beside their camels in four-by-fours. It’s busiest and most exciting during Dubai Camel Racing festival, held for 12 days every February, when thousands of the most prized racing camels from all over the UAE converge. In April, the track hosts Al Marmoum Heritage Festival, which features an abundance of races. It’s free to watch and you can see the camels being bred and traded in Al Lisaili’s ranches and at the local camel market.

Dhow sailing

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - dhow sailing.

Dubai’s sporting legacy doesn’t just extend to desert pursuits, for centuries Arabian traders have been masters of the Gulf seas too, sailing graceful wooden boats known as dhows, laden with dates, spices, fish and pearls. Many Emirati families can trace their roots back to seafarers and pearl merchants and the ships have become part of the national identity. Dubai International Marine Club organises a number of sailing contests around Dubai each year.

But the annual Al Gaffal Dhow Race, started by the UAE’s royal family, is Dubai’s defining boat race with more than 100 60-foot-long sail boats competing in a long-distance race that follows the traditional trade route in and out of Dubai. Manned by at least twelve emirates nationals, solely wind-powered and weighted by sandbags and crew shifting around the boat, there’s an age-old art to sailing the dhow quite different to yachting. The race begins early to catch the morning trade winds and the finish line is aptly situated right by the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab. Spectators can see the race from along the shoreline or get among the action on one of the ferries chartered for the event. Dubai Offshore Sailing Club offers taster sessions and lessons if you’d like to learn for yourself.

Camel polo

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - camel polo.

Invented in Dubai, camel polo is to standard polo as crazy golf is to golf. A modern twist on a heritage sport using camels instead of horses, it requires one person to guide the notoriously unruly dromedaries while another swings the club. Teams of at least four people compete on camel back following the same rules as standard polo. You can see exhibition matches at Dubai’s polo clubs and resorts such as the St Regis Dubai, Al Habtoor Polo Resort & Club, which hosts British Polo Day in March with a special camel polo match included in proceedings.

Head coach at Dubai Polo Academy Steve Thompson came up with the idea seven years ago after seeing novelty elephant polo in Thailand. After training camels in the sport, the first ever match was hosted at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort. You can get involved at a whole host of polo clubs, resorts and Arabian ranches in Dubai and local tour operator Arabian Adventures has a package for visitors. It’s become a permanent fixture at Desert Palm, Per Aquum, which has on-site camel stables and match grounds, as well as exclusive Polo Suites offering a private window on the sport.

Falconry

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - Falconry.

The art of falconry is an ancient tradition in Dubai passed down from the desert-dwelling Bedouins who caught and trained the birds of prey to aid in hunting for food. Today it’s a sport that’s taken very seriously in the UAE, with the best birds fetching handsome sums and contests offering lavish prizes. The Fazza Championship for Falconry, held in Dubai’s Ruwayyah area in January and February each year, is a great opportunity for visitors to see the UAE’s fabulous trained falcons take to the skies.

To get up close to falcons, learn to handle them with an expert and watch hunting demonstrations, visit the Al Hurr Falconry centre in Nad Al Sheba, which houses peregrines, sakers, lanners, gyrs and hybrids. Resorts such as Bab Al Shams and Al Maha offer falconry experiences with flying demos and bird handling, while several tour operators do half-day falconry safaris in Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

Hunting with saluki dogs

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - Saluki dogs.

Also known as the Arabian greyhound with lean bodies and large floppy hairy ears, saluki dogs were traditionally used alongside falcons by Bedouins hunting in the desert. They are one of the oldest domesticated dog breeds and can run across large swathes of desert at speeds of up to 40mph. Inspired by this quest for food, saluki hunting is still practised as sport in the emirates, though today’s hunters tend to follow in cars instead of on camels or horses. You can witness it during the annual Fazza Saluki Championship, when salukis are measured by their speed and stamina over several rounds racing to the prey and being guided to the finish line. If you just want to admire the dogs, drop into the Arabian Saluki Centre on a day trip to Abu Dhabi.

Horse racing

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - Horse racing.

The beautiful Arabian horse is an intrinsic part of the region’s heritage so it’s unsurprising that horse racing and equestrian sports are popular in Dubai. The Dubai International Arabian Horse Championship and Show held at Dubai’s World Trade Centre in March is the place to be if you want to admire these wonderful equine specimens.

Horse racing events in Dubai run during the cooler months from November to March, with the glittering Dubai World Cup thoroughbred horse race capping off the season at the world-class Meydan Racecourse. The track and mile-long grandstand at Meydan is also the venue for the world’s top endurance race – the Dubai Crown Prince Endurance Cup – which is a cornerstone of equestrianism in the Emirates. More than 100 of the world’s most skilled riders and horses compete to cover very long distances over multiple stages in the shortest time possible while being closely monitored by vets.

Over at Dubai International Endurance City the sport is honed to perfection with regular competitions, while you can find spectator-friendly events close by at Emirates Equestrian Centre too. Run by Dubai Equestrian Club, it hosts national show jumping and dressage competitions, the FEI World Dressage Challenge and the Dubai World Show Jumping Championship.

Free diving

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - Free diving.

Evolved from the regional pearl diving industry in which fisherman would descend into the Arabian Gulf’s depths to fetch oysters from the seabed on just one breath, free diving is a national specialism in the UAE. The tradition is highlighted by the yearly Fazza Championship for Freediving with divers using techniques passed down from ancient mariners. The contest attracts free divers from all over the world, and there’s a category open to UAE and Gulf nationals only. Formerly held in the Arabian Sea, the contest is now much easier to watch as it is hosted at Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Sports Complex in Al Ruwayyah.

Travellers can sample this age-old pursuit on a pearl diving excursion with Major Ali. The tour takes you out into the Arabian Gulf on a dhow where you’ll don an authentic white diving suit and learn to collect pearl oysters from the seabed.

Ayala dancing

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - men dancing.

Also known as "stick dancing", Ayala is the dance of Arabian gentleman derived as a sign of cooperation between different desert tribes. Over time, sticks replaced swords and the traditional group folk dance is performed by two lines of dishdasha-clad men facing one another wielding sticks and nodding up and down. Accompanied by drumming, it’s often performed at official events, national ceremonies and weddings.

Saktoun rifle shooting

Sports of sheikhs: traditional pursuits in Dubai - man with a rifle.

The Al Saktoun rifle is a traditional Emirati weapon used by tribesmen for fishing, hunting, and in times of war. A very specific style of hunting and shooting, the Saktoun shooter lays down sniper-style with the rifle propped on a cushion, nestled in their shoulder and eyes sharp over the barrel towards the target. Hundreds of locals train for the Fazza Championship for Saktoun Rifle Shooting held at Dubai Police shooting field in Dubai’s Ruwayyah area. The tournament, which happens each March, is open to spectators who can see skilled marksmen using live ammunition and telescopes to expertly pinpoint their targets. If you fancy learning the art, head to the JA Shooting Club in Jebel Ali, where rifles are used to shoot clay pigeons on its safe and modern shooting ranges.  

Sasha Wood

Sasha Wood

The wordy wanderer

An incorrigible scribbler with an incurable case of wanderlust, my curiosity for Arabia piqued as a...

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