MESAIEED, Qatar (AP) — Shaheen stretched out on the sand and closed her eyes, but the camel had little time to rest. The World Cup fans who flocked to the desert on the outskirts of Doha were ready for the perfect Instagram moment from him: riding a camel across the rolling dunes.
As Qatar welcomes over a million fans for the World Cup a month, even its dealers are working overtime. A number of visitors the tiny emirate has never seen before rush to finish off a list of Gulf tourism experiences between games: riding a camel, taking pictures with falcons and strolling the alleys of traditional markets.
On a recent Friday afternoon, hundreds of visitors in soccer uniforms or draped in flags waited their turn to ride the humpbacked animals. Camels that did not get up were forced to do so by their guides. As a camel let out a loud growl, a woman from Australia yelled: “It looks like they’re being raped!” Nearby, a group of men from Mexico dressed in white Qatari robes and headdresses took selfies.
“It’s really an amazing feeling because you feel so high up,” Juan Gaul, 28, said after his run. The Argentine fan spent a week visiting Qatar from Australia.
Seizing the opportunity are animal keepers who, thanks to the World Cup, earn several times more than normal.
“A lot of money is 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 trips per day and 50 on weekends. Since the World Cup began, Al Ali and the men he works with are providing 500 rides in the morning and another 500 at night. The company went from having 15 camels to 60, he said.
“Tour guides want to do things fast,” Al Ali said, “so they push us.”
As the 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 the Qataris with a vital form of transportation and aided in the exploration and development of trade routes. Today, ungulates figure 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 again after standing up. He can identify each camel by its facial features.
“I am a Bedouin. I come from a family of Bedouins who tend camels. I grew up loving them,” Al Ali said.
But the surge in tourists means there is less time to rest between trips, he said. A short trip lasts just 10 minutes, while longer ones last 20-30 minutes.
Normally, Al Ali said that a camel can rest after five rides. “Now, people say we can’t wait … because they have other plans that they have to go to in the middle of the desert,” he said.
Since the World Cup began, the animals have taken 15 to 20, sometimes even 40 rides, without a break.
Al Ali’s day begins around 4:30 am, when he feeds the animals and prepares them for customers. Some tourists have been arriving at sunrise, she said, hoping to get the perfect sunrise shot, “so we have to work with them and take photos of them.”
From noon to 2 p.m., both the guides and the camels rest, he said. “Then we started preparing for the afternoon battle.”
But not all visitors have been wowed by the experience.
Pablo Corigliano, a 47-year-old real estate agent from Buenos Aires, said he expected something more authentic. The excursions begin in a stretch of desert by the side of a highway, not far from the industrial city of Mesaieed and its vast oil refineries.
“I was expecting something more wild,” Corigliano said. “I thought I would be crossing the desert, but when I got there I saw a typical tourist spot.”
Soon after, Corigliano and a group of friends looked for a buggy to race through the desert.
Follow Lujain Jo and Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @lujainjo Y @SumanNaishadham
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