The camels lumber into view on the dusty racecourse, their approach heralded by the blare of car horns.
The grandstand crowd of mostly Gulf Arab men rises to its feet to cheer on the leaders and their jockeys -- tiny robots strapped behind the humps that resemble an overturned wastebasket swathed in racing silks.
A pack of luxury SUVs weaving in and out on a road next to the track carries the owners, who furiously urge their camels on. Using remote controls, they trigger the robots' tiny, plastic crops and send voice commands that come out of a speaker.
This is camel racing in the Middle East, where high technology and lucrative purses have revived the age-old sport of kings and princes.
"I love the excitement and competitive edge, especially if it's to my advantage," said Naif Mohssen al-Shawani, a 27-year-old Qatari who owns 80 racing camels and won $136,126, a Range Rover and a gold sword at the races in Dubai.
In a region that has become synonymous with glamorous Formula One races, luxury hotels with gold-dispensing ATMs and the world's tallest skyscraper, camel racing has endured.
It has not only survived the region's headlong rush into modernity, but become a booming business across the Gulf. Helped by faster camels, the infusion of technology and purses that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, organizers say the sport has grown fivefold in the past decade and expanded beyond its base in the Gulf to other parts of the Middle East and Africa.
"It has grown so fast that we are not even able to keep up with the number of competitors," said Abdulla al-Muhairy, general manager of the Camel Race Association, the organization responsible for the sport in the UAE.
"This is a new phase of the sport," he said. "It is considered the golden age."
The Gulf's ruling families remain the sport's driving force as they have since it first was revived in the 1950s. But al-Muhairy said increasing numbers of Gulf Arabs and even a few Europeans and Russians are investing in camel racing or turning up to watch. For many Emiratis, it's a chance to recapture a Bedouin way of life that has been lost in the drive to raise dazzling cities in the deserts.
"Everybody wants to go back to their traditional ways," said al-Muhairy, adding that the 10-day, Abu Dhabi festival attracted 50,000 spectators and more than 15,000 camels. "It's considered part of our national identity. That is why it has grown."
Amin al-Qassim, an official with the Emirates Heritage Club, agreed. "It's all about the culture," said al-Qassim, who had brought 18 children from the area to the Abu Dhabi race. "We want to preserve the culture and encourage the young ones to come and see what the culture of this country is all about. That is very important."
The sport also has benefited from a push to modernize an activity that until several decades ago was seen as little more than entertainment at traditional desert festivals or official ceremonies.
Using horse racing as a rough guide, organizers led by the UAE government have built massive courses throughout the Gulf -- the biggest, in Abu Dhabi, stretches 6.2 miles -- with grandstands, tracks and cameras to decide photo finishes. There are 20 tracks in the UAE and most big races, which can feature 25 or more camels, are televised live locally. Betting is forbidden.
More than anything else, the robo jockeys have come to symbolize the ancient sport's embrace of 21st century technology. The robots were first introduced six years ago to replace children as young as 4 who were forced to ride the camels.
The children were trafficked by the thousands to the Gulf starting in the 1970s. Mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as parts of Africa, the jockeys were unpaid and held in slave-like conditions. They were underfed to keep their weight down, and sometimes were badly injured or even killed when they were thrown off their mounts or trampled by camels during races.
Pressure from the UK-based Anti-Slavery International and labor rights groups prompted Qatar and then the UAE to ban the use of child jockeys and replace them with the robo jockeys, which have shrunk in size and now weigh less than 7 pounds.
Though the robots are mostly identical -- differentiated only by the tiny jerseys that feature patterns, logos and bright colors of a ruling family or a stable -- there have been several cases this year of Dubai vendors selling robots that can shock camels into running faster. Such devices are banned and one Saudi owner is facing charges in Dubai for using one.
Owners didn't take to the robots initially, fearing they wouldn't be able to control the camels as well as with the young boys. But over time, most were won over because the robots allowed their prized camels to improve their times by several minutes on the standard five-mile tracks.
"We got to the point where it was dangerous for the children. We faced the pressure from labor rights groups," said Ali Saeed Ali, managing director of the Dubai Camel Racing Club, which hosted the first of three season-ending festivals. The last two are in Abu Dhabi and Doha, Qatar.
"Now, it's much better than before," said Ali, sitting in his office, which has a view a life-size statue of a racing camel ridden by a robot jockey. "The robots are lighter and you can use them anytime."
There are still those in the sport, however, who say the robots take spontaneity out of the races.
Ahmed Mustansir Billah, the CEO of Zabeel Feedmill in Dubai and one of the UAE's leading racing experts, admits he used to "get more thrills" when there were human jockeys -- though he understands the reason for the ban.
"It is the participation of an individual who can make a decision, 'What is the time to charge my animal,' " Billah said. "When the other camel comes up, the robot has no control. That human element was very important for any race. If you take it out, you have made a constant."
But for most of the owners, the robots have evened the playing field and allowed them to concentrate on the sport's heart and soul -- the camels.
Just as their parents and grandparents did, owners often treat camels like family members, feeding them special diets that include honey, barley and dates, and giving them names that play on their personalities, such as Al Shaazel (joyful), or their physical attributes, such as Al Assad (the lion). Others are named for their dominance on the track, their speed or their record of winning big prizes.
As the sport has grown, so has the value of a camel with a good record or pedigree. The best come from the UAE -- which has led the way in breeding, using techniques such as artificial insemination and embryo transfer -- and are known to fetch roughly $270,000 to $550,000 at auction. Ruling families have paid upward of $4.1 million for camels, some of which have been known to race until the age of 15.
Paying top dollar for a camel is worth it given the prize money; the most lucrative Dubai and Abu Dhabi races feature a $272,250 purse and luxury SUVs or Range Rovers. The 203 new cars that were to be awarded in Abu Dhabi were lined up in front of the grandstand, just below huge portraits of the various UAE rulers.
Winning the big, end-of-season races that feature only the top camels also is a badge of honor for sheiks who routinely try to one up each other.
"It's the prestige," Billah said. "You feel proud. That is something attached to every sport. If I have the best camel and I win the big race in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I will say forget about F1 or anything. In my own culture, people the whole year will talk about it. Look at that camel."
Even with the high stakes and the presence of ruling family elite such as Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the races can seem a bit anticlimatic to a newcomer.
Rather than the heart-stopping action of say the Dubai World Cup horse race, they are much slower and have the relaxed feel of a cultural festival. Most serious fans watch on television.
Hours before the race, families sell dates and honey in the parking lot and men in dishdashas -- the traditional white, one-piece tunic -- sit together near the camels to trade animals and talk shop. As the crowds of several hundred Emirati men and South Asian migrants fill the stands, Arabic songs about camels are piped through the sound system.
Then 14 camels, covered with blankets and strapped with robots, are led to the starting gate. With little more than a few howls by their handlers, the gate is lifted and they tumble out. They rush off into the distance, scaring a flock of pigeons and disappearing around the five-mile, circular track for about 17 minutes -- about eight times slower than a big-stakes horse race.
As the camels fade from view, the crowd grows silent and turns its attention to TV screens showing the race. The camels don't seem to be racing as much as running a marathon and seem oblivious to the other animals on the track. The robots add a surreal note to the scene, making it look like something out of "Star Wars."
"You can't see anything," said Christoph Heinrich, who was among a group of 30 Germans watching the races in Dubai. "It's more like a car race than a camel race. There are like eight camels and 80 to 100 honking cars. But it is a cultural experience."
As the winners near the finish, the owners pop their heads through sunroofs of their SUVs to wave checkered head scarves in celebration. They come to a screeching halt near the grandstands.
The camels are grabbed by their handlers after crossing the finish line. Most are frothing from the mouth as they are dragged off to stable area to be washed down.
And rather than roses and champagne, the champions are smeared with golden, orange saffron and paraded in front of adoring fans in the grandstand.