RAK (rhymes with)

There is no entry in the CIA Factbook for Ras Al Khaimah, the maybe-yes maybe-no site of the alleged next America’s Cup. The Defender is on-site. The Challenger says he ain’t goin’. But what is this little-known spot in the United Arab Emirates? Obviously, they ponied up for some action to generate publicity, so here goes. At raktourism.com the Lifestyle page shows a casually clad Western female and companion strolling along a glittering beach, but I am under the impression that their own women live quite covered up, thank you, and it’s these contradictions that lend a head-on-collision fascination to this part of our shrinking world.


On a trip to Qatar once I was advised to not photograph the women, don’t speak to the women, man, don’t even look at the women. And I promised myself then and there I would not leer at the burqhas. Meanwhile it’s frustrating that I can’t get a 2009 update on robot camel jockeys, and I’m still waiting (tap tap tap) for the emirate’s media division to get back to me about dhow-cruising the Mussandam Peninsula. This expat-speak on the tourist bureau web site makes it sound pretty good:

mussandam“Mussandam is dramatic and un-spoilt, with breathtaking natural scenery. The country side ranges from mangroves, sea level sabkha (salt-flats), gravel plains and desert to stunning mountain scenery and the famous ‘fjords of Arabia’, where the mountains plunge steeply into the clear waters of the Strait of Hormuz.”

Yes, the Strait of Hormuz is lovely this time of year.



Don’t worry Mom. I haven’t booked a flight.

And robot camel jockeys? It’s like this.

As the entities of the UAE grew more entwined with the world at large, one of their favorite sports became a tad embarrassing. Camel racing is their great tradition, but camels run fastest with the lightest load. The subtext of that tradition was that jockeys were “recruited” by going to the Sudan, or Pakistan, and paying some starving family 27 cents for a six-year-old. No point feeding him much, since you want to keep him little and light, and if he falls off and gets squashed like a bug, dang, let’s hope he doesn’t trip the camel.

(Actually, organizations such as Unicef and Human Rights Watch were so uncharitable as to use the words “kidnapping” and “slavery.”)

That wouldn’t do, so the Emirate of Qatar led the way in commissioning a Swiss company to develop an electronic box that could be used remotely to control the camel. And it worked.

But wait.

It spooked the camels.

So they mounted the device in a housing shaped like a rider, and the camels were fine with that. At last, time to race. Those little robot arms would spin, and those little robot whips would set the camels a-streaking.

But wait.

Some of the mullahs weren’t going to like it because now you have created a human likeness, an idol.

So then the job was to find a balance that wouldn’t offend either the camels or the mullahs. And you think you have problems.

In 2005 the working balance was achieved, and the UAE banned the use of child jockeys. The question then was enforcement, which apparently is taken seriously.

RAKcamels A crisp account of these developments was written in 2005 by Jim Lewis for Wired magazine in a piece titled,
Robots of Arabia. Lewis focused on Qatar, which is more conservative than Dubai but on the move, and presumably somewhere “ahead” of RAK, whose tourism office is currently displaying this pic.

Frankly, I can’t tell if those riders are or aren’t, but they look more like real riders than the 2007 version of the robots, which you can see in this segment on youtube.

I note that RAK forbids smoking in public places for its population of 300,000, so as a Californian I should feel right at home. RAK has contracted with a Swiss company to develop a floating island where solar electricity will be generated—they’re plugged into the 21st century in their own way—and if you take a look at this PBS account of RAK’s planned new capital city you will discover a desire to meld tradition with innovation. If you’re into architecture, you owe yourself this one. A democracy could never pull this together, but an absolute monarchy under Emir Saqr bin Muhammad al-Qasimi can carve out a square in the desert, yes it can.

Meanwhile, at gulfnews.com, readers (theirs, not mine) are invited to participate in the following poll:


The biggest achievement by the UAE this year is:

Agreement with US for peaceful nuclear cooperation

Guinness Book of Records entry as top cultivator of date palms

Appointment of first female judge in Dubai

Birth of world’s first cloned camel

Becoming an international cricket venue with new stadium

Marking of Labour Day for the first time

Crowning of Al Ahli as champions in the inaugural UAE Professional Football League

Becoming the headquarters for the International Renewable Energy Agency

The launch of the first remote sensing satellite by Dubai

To which we add, the arrival of Alinghi?

Carlo Borlenghi/Alinghi

Carlo Borlenghi/Alinghi

Suns New Jerseys