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Gallery Highlight: Racing Ships of the Desert

28 November 2023

By 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum Curatorial Team

Commonly referred to as ‘ships of the desert’, camels have played a vital role in Qatar, and the region, for over a thousand years. In addition to their practical role, they are also celebrated in the world of sport.

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Camels have one of the most extensive migration histories in the animal kingdom. While the species originated in North America, the biggest concentrations of camels now exist in the Middle East, North Africa and China, while some wild camels remain in Australia and Latin America.

In the time since they were first domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula, camels have been an essential part of life in Qatar, providing meat and milk as well as a means of transport and a sign of social prestige. They have also served as a source of entertainment and competition. Inscribed in 2020 on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, camel racing boasts a history that goes back as far as the 7th century.

For centuries, races traditionally took place on special occasions, such as weddings, Eid celebrations, or to welcome honoured guests. While rubies were once a customary prize for race winners, modern camel racing has upped the stakes, with golden trophies and cash prizes reaching the tens of thousands.

Modern professional camel racing was introduced in Qatar’s Al-Shahanyia municipality in 1973, and has grown in popularity every year since then. The sport continues to evolve, including a 2005 rule that banned human jockeys and replaced them with remote controlled robot-jockeys, a move that was seen as fusing the traditional sport with modernity and technology.


The Golden sword and scabbard, which was awarded at the 2016 Festival of His Highness the Amir to the camel ‘Al-Jazeera’, is on view in the Qatar Sports Culture gallery at the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum. The most decorated animal in the world of camel racing, Al Jazeera achieved top prizes for each age category before being retired. Photo courtesy of 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum © 2023.

The Heijen, or camel festival, is organised by the Camel Racing Organising Committee (CROC) of Qatar. It runs from September to March at the Al Shahaniya camel racetrack, with races for different types of camel. Owners drive their cars next to the track alongside the Camels, cheering them on through walkie-talkie speakers on the robot-jockeys.

Local competitions are held for Qataris and international competitions for owners from all over the world. The top racing prize (as organised by CROC) is the Golden Sword of His Highness the Father Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, which is awarded for the H.H. the Amir’s Main Race.

Plan your visit to see these objects and others, including items from Qatar’s rich equestrian and falconry histories, in the Qatar Sports Culture gallery at QOSM.