When visiting this thoroughly modern metropolis, wouldn’t it be exciting to experience life like an Emirati? Traditional sports such as falconry, camel racing, and dhow racing are still popular in Dubai, all of which celebrate the region’s Bedouin and pearl-diving past.
An integral part of desert life since the 13th century BC, falconry may be a sheikh’s pastime, but you don't need to be one to experience it. In the Nad Al Sheba locality, you can take part in an integral part of Dubai desert life at Al Hurr Falconry. The facility provides a number of demonstrations with a selection of falcons, including peregrines, sakers, lanners, gyrfalcons and hybrids, as well as historical notes on how falconry evolved from a means to hunt hares and houbara into the competitive sport it is today.
To see the best birds in action, you’ll want to time your trip for January to catch the Fazza Championships in the Ruwayyah region of Dubai, when the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre hosts a series of contests trumpeting Emirati sports, including hunting, shooting, undersea diving, and Al Yullah (a traditional Arab dance). This year, record-breaking flying speeds won the falconry champion a Range Rover and AED500,000 in cash — a modern sheen on the deep-rooted heritage of the sport. NB: Betting is not allowed.
Hand-in-hand with falconry (and also a Fazza Championship contest) is the traditional hunting with saluki dogs, a desert-adapted greyhound-like breed known for its stamina and speed (up to 60 km/h). Bedouins used both birds (to hover over prey) and beasts to bring down larger animals such as gazelles. If you have time for a day trip to Abu Dhabi, get an up-close-and-personal look at the breed at the Arabian Saluki Centre, next door to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
For shooting (using rifles and clay pigeons, as hunting itself is banned), the place in Dubai to practice is the JA Shooting Club in Jebel Ali, a safe and state-of-the-art centre with five floodlit clay shooting ranges (trap, double trap and/or skeet). It’s the place to fine-tune your technique, or the sure-shot place to learn if you’ve never held a gun before. Afterwards, claim your ‘prize’ in the form of a flame-grilled steak at Shooters, the on-site Western-style American steakhouse famous for its circular floor-to-ceiling glass wall that has views of the clay shooting ranges below.
And then there’s the camel: the Bedouin beast of burden and an integral element of survival for thousands of years. To really see these ‘Ships of the Desert’ in action, head to a camel race or experience a camel polo match. The latter was a sport invented in Dubai. Today, one of the best places to enjoy a day of camel polo is with the experts at Gulf Ventures. Head to the green where you’ll be greeted by professional staff to teach you the basics of the sport. Once the brief lesson ends, hop up and get the game going as the laughter and fun ensue. It’s the perfect experience for a corporate or family outing.
For camel racing, the Al Lisaili Racetrack is the place to watch the soul of Emirati sports — with a modern twist. From October to early April, the cream of the camel crop speeds through the track at up to 55 km/h. On the sidelines, enthusiastic trainers ride along in their 4x4s, directing their voice controlled, light-as-a-feather, robot jockeys. Between the sands and high stakes, sitting in the grandstand is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.
Time your trip for March and catch another Emirati must-see race, but this time with horses. The Dubai Crown Prince Endurance Cup is the créme de le créme of endurance riding — you may even rub elbows with the royal family. This must-see event showcases more than 100 of the best riders racing through the 120-kilometre course at the Meydan Grandstand.
As much fun as it is experiencing the Emirati traditions on land, there’s a whole other side of it at sea. Pearl Diving with Major Ali offers a plunge into the past. Leaving from Jumeirah Beach, you’ll sail into the emerald waters of the Arabian Gulf on a traditional dhow, suit up in the authentic white diver’s overalls, and take the plunge to scour the seabed for pearl-filled oysters. Even If you go home empty handed, you’ll still leave with a piece of Dubai history — and a fresh seafood lunch.
Dubai traders sailed the wooden-hulled dhow with traditional triangular sails for hundreds of years. Today, you can join the fun at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club and explore all the activities the Arabian Gulf has to offer, including the opportunity to see some of the biggest racing competitions around the Gulf. If you’re an aspiring skipper, you can take courses at Dinghy Park and the Cruiser Facilities to get the basics down or raise your performance to its peak.