By Faisal Baatoutn
(DOHA) — Qatar is set to substitute robots for jockeys in camel races, a favorite sport in the oil-rich Gulf region which has faced widespread criticism over the use of child jockeys from the Indian subcontinent.
But the sport’s supremo in Doha insists Qatar never abused child camel jockeys in the first place and that the plan to use "robot-jockeys" within the coming year was not in response to protests by human rights groups.
"We have successfully completed three phases in the production of the robot," the president of the organizing committee of camel races in this Gulf state said.
"We are awaiting a visit by the engineers handling the project to start the fourth, and probably last, phase," said Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Faisal al-Thani.
He said the robot was being developed by a Swiss company but would not disclose further details, citing the terms of the contract with the unnamed firm. The robots are expected to be ready in 2005.
Curious, very curious. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to see this while we are still here.
Sheikh Hamad announced last March that robot-jockeys had been used in a camel race for the first time and the practice would be repeated.
Gulf Arab monarchies are trying to bring order to the national sport in the face of protests over the trafficking of young children from the subcontinent as jockeys.
The US State Department and human rights groups have raised the alarm over the exploitation of children by traffickers who pay impoverished parents a paltry sum or simply resort to kidnapping their victims.
The children, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Pakistan, are then smuggled into the oil-rich Gulf states.
They are often starved by employers to keep them light and maximize their racing potential. Mounting camels three times their height, the children – some as young as six – face the risk of being thrown off or trampled.
Officials in Qatar’s organizing committee of camel races have been proudly circulating sketches of the robots, which suggest the final product will be a much more advanced version of the one used on a trial basis earlier this year.
One of the sketches shows a human-shaped robot in the saddle, while another features a remote control device to command the ‘jockey’ to make hand movements to direct the camel. According to Sheikh Hamad, the Swiss company was paid around 1.37 million dollars to produce the robots, which will cost just under 5,500 dollars apiece.
"The committee will buy 100 robots and rent them out at prices subsidized by the government," he said. But Sheikh Hamad refuted claims that Qatar had abused or trafficked child jockeys. "Our leadership seeks to make Qatar a state of law which upholds human rights, and we will never allow ourselves to act in a way that runs counter to this," he said.
Defying critics to produce evidence of rights abuses, Sheikh Hamad said there were no Asian jockeys in the gas-rich Gulf state. "All are Sudanese, who entered the country legally" accompanied by their parents or other legal guardians, he maintained. There are some 100 youths aged nine to over 20 who are either professional camel jockeys or undergoing training in Qatar. Only jockeys aged 14 or more are allowed to take part in races.
An official said last month that Qatar was drafting a bill that would ban hiring people under 18 as jockeys for camel races. The legislation should be ready next April. Camel owner Saqr al-Marrikhi said he was prepared to "appear before any (tribunal) in the world and own up to my responsibility if it is proven that we exploit children" in any way.
"I’m a father. Would I allow anyone to exploit my son?" said Mohammad Saad, a Sudanese national accompanying his 12-year-old son to a school for child jockeys. Qatar’s main camel race carries a prize of more than 190,000 dollars, 10 percent of which goes to the parent or guardian of the jockey, who also gets a monthly salary of up to 400 dollars.