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The suspension of the World Cup weighs on Qatar’s camels


MESAIEED, Qatar (AP) Shaheen lay down on the sand and closed her eyes, but there was little time to rest for the camel. World Cup fans flocking to the desert outside Doha were ready for their perfect Instagram moment: riding a camel in the rolling dunes.

As Qatar welcomes more than a million fans for the month-long World Cup, its camels are also working overtime. Visitors in numbers the tiny emirate has never seen before are scrambling to complete a short list of Gulf tourism experiences between the games: ride camels back, take photos with falcons and wander the alleys of traditional markets.

On a recent Friday afternoon, hundreds of visitors in football uniforms or wearing flags waited their turn to ride the humpbacks. Camels that would not mount were forced up by their handlers. When a camel made a loud noise, a woman from Australia screamed, it looks like they are being raped! Nearby, a group of Mexican men wearing white Qatari knives and headdresses took selfies.

It’s really an amazing feeling because you feel so tall, said 28-year-old Juan Gaul after his ride. The Argentinian fan was in Qatar for a week from Australia.

The beneficiaries of this opportunity are the animal owners, who, thanks to the World Cup, are earning several times more than they would normally.

There is 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 too much pressure.

Al Ali came to Qatar 15 years ago but has been working with camels since he was a child. On an average weekday before the World Cup, Al Ali said his company would offer about 20 trips a day and 50 on weekends. Since the start of the World Cup, Al Ali and the men he works with are offering 500 trips in the morning and another 500 in the evening. The company went from 15 camels to 60, he said.

The guides want to move things quickly, Al Ali said, so they add pressure on us.

As crowds formed around them, many camels sat like statues with cloth muzzles covering their mouths and shiny saddles on their bodies. The smell of manure filled the air.

Like other Gulf cultures, camels once provided Qatar with a vital form of transportation and helped explore and develop trade routes. Today, ungulates are included in cultural pastimes: camel racing is a popular sport that takes place on old-school tracks outside the city.

Al Ali said he knows when an animal is tired usually if it refuses to get up or sits down after standing up. He can identify any camel by its facial features.

I am a Bedouin. I come from a Bedouin family that takes care of camels. I grew up loving them, Al Ali said.

But the sudden increase in tourists means there is less time to rest between trips, he said. A short trip takes only 10 minutes, while longer ones take 20 to 30 minutes.

Normally, Al Ali said, a camel can rest after five journeys. Now, people say we can’t wait … because they have other plans where they have to go to the middle of the desert, he said.

Since the start of the World Cup, animals are taken for 15 to 20 sometimes even 40 trips without a break.

Al Ali’s day starts around 4:30 a.m., when he feeds the animals and gets them ready for customers. Some tourists have arrived at dawn, he said, hoping to get the perfect sunrise shot, so we have to work with them and take photos for them.

From noon to 2 p.m., both handlers and camels rest, he said. Then we start preparing for the afternoon battle.

But not every visitor is taken by the experience.

Pablo Corigliano, a 47-year-old real estate agent from Buenos Aires, said he was hoping for something more authentic. Tours begin in a stretch of desert on the side of a highway, not far from the industrial city of Mesaieed and its large oil refineries.

I expected something wilder, Corigliano said. I thought I would cross the desert, but when I arrived, I saw a typical tourist spot.

Soon after, Corigliano and a group of friends asked for a dune buggy to run in the desert.


Follow Lujain Jo and Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @lujainjo AND @SumanNaishadham


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