“ALLAHU akbar!” the boys shout gleefully from atop their camels, the reins of others held in their raised fists, their backs to the setting sun. Beside them a metal-fenced racing track cuts through the pancake-flat desert. Every dawn and dusk the camels are trained to run on this plain outside Kassala, a city in eastern Sudan. Their owners hope they will catch the eye of the wealthy Emiratis who visit several times a year to buy the fastest mounts for multimillion-dollar prize races in Dubai.
The Rashaida, a tribe that migrated to Sudan and Eritrea from Saudi Arabia in the mid-19th century, are renowned for breeding some of the world’s speediest racing camels. They are also notorious for trafficking Eritreans who cross the border, around 30km (20 miles) from Kassala, in the hope of eventually reaching Europe. Emiratis buy between 100 and 300 young camels a year from the village of Abu Talha, some for as much as $80,000, says Hamed Hamid, a mustachioed patriarch. There are around 800 racing beasts in a settlement of 1,200 people, he estimates, and many more are being raised for slaughter. “The camels are everything. They give us milk, meat and trade,” Mr Hamid says, as his wife brews tea and coffee over hot coals under a starry sky.
Although the Rashaida are traditionally nomadic, many have settled in villages like Abu Talha, a jumble of earthen-walled or brightly painted concrete houses. They have also adapted to the United Arab Emirates’ ban on child jockeys, after the state was censured by the UN in 2005. Boys still train some camels, but others are whipped along by miniature robots dressed in jockey silks and given orders remotely from white Toyota pickup trucks.
Each month the villagers sell around 200 baby camels to Saudi Arabia and 120 adult ones to Egypt for human consumption, says Mr Hamid, pointing out a large female that will fetch as much as 25,000 Sudanese pounds ($1,525 at the black-market exchange rate). Livestock is a big and growing business all over east Africa, in considerable part fuelled by the Gulf’s increasing appetite for meat. Live Sudanese animal exports more than trebled to $670m between 2010 and 2013 (the most recent years for which the World Bank has data). More than 70% were sheep, demand for which surges around the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, when they are ceremonially slaughtered. In 2015 Somalia sold 5.3m animals, worth $384m; livestock counts for 40% of that fractured country’s GDP.
Other Sudanese may sneer that the Rashaida’s new cars and houses have been bought with the proceeds of people-smuggling. But there is plenty of money to be made in the legitimate business of exporting livestock.