MESAIEED, Qatar (AP) — Shaheen stretched out on the sand and closed his 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 through the rolling dunes.
As Qatar welcomes more than a million fans to the month-long World Cup, even the camels are working overtime. Visitors in numbers the tiny emirate has never seen before scramble between games to work off a bucket list of Gulf tourist experiences: ride camelback, snap photos with falcons and meander the alleys of traditional markets.
On a recent Friday afternoon, hundreds of visitors in football uniforms or draped with flags waited their turn to climb the humpback whales. Camels that did not get up were pushed up by their handlers. When a camel growled loudly, a woman from Australia screamed, “it sounds like they are being violated!” Nearby, a group of men from Mexico, dressed in white Qatari thobes and headdresses, were taking selfies.
“It’s a really great feeling because you feel so long,” said 28-year-old Juan Gaul after his ride. The Argentinian fan visited Qatar for a week from Australia.
This opportunity is being cashed in by the animal caretakers, who earn many times more than normal thanks to the World Cup.
“A lot of money is coming in,” says 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 childhood. On an average weekday before the World Cup, Al Ali said his company would offer about 20 rides a day and 50 on weekends. Al Ali and the men he works with have provided 500 rides in the morning and another 500 in the evening since the start of the World Cup. The company went from 15 to 60 camels, he said.
“Tour guides want to do things quickly,” Al Ali said, “so they put pressure on us.”
As a crowd formed around them, many camels sat like statues with cloth muzzles over their mouths and shining saddles on their bodies. The smell of manure filled the air.
Like other Gulf cultures, camels once provided Qataris with an essential form of transportation and helped them explore and develop trade routes. Today, the ungulates play a role in cultural pastimes: camel racing is a popular sport that takes place on old-fashioned circuits outside the city.
Al Ali said he knows when an animal is tired – usually when it refuses to get up or sits down again after getting up. He can identify any camel by its facial features.
“I am a Bedouin. I come from a family of Bedouins who care for camels. I grew up loving them,” Al Ali said.
But the sudden increase in tourist numbers means there’s less time to rest between rides, he said. A short ride takes only 10 minutes, while longer ones take 20 to 30 minutes.
Normally, a camel can rest after five rides, Al Ali said. “Now people say we can’t wait … because they have other plans to go to in the middle of the desert,” he said.
Since the start of the World Cup, the animals have been taken 15 to 20 – sometimes even 40 rides – without a break.
Al Ali’s day starts around 4:30 am, when he feeds the animals and prepares them for the customers. Some tourists arrive at dawn, he said, hoping to get the perfect sunrise photo, “so we have to work with them and take pictures for them.”
From noon to 2 p.m., both handlers and camels rest, he said. “Then we begin to get ready for the afternoon battle.”
But not every visitor is captivated by the experience.
Pablo Corigliano, a 47-year-old real estate agent from Buenos Aires, said he was hoping for something more authentic. The excursions begin on a stretch of desert on the side of a highway, not far from the industrial city of Mesaieed and its sprawling oil refineries.
“I expected something wilder,” said Corigliano. “I thought I would cross the desert, but when I arrived I saw a typical tourist point.”
Soon after, Corigliano and a group of friends sought out a dune buggy to race into the desert.
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