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In Dubai’s first camel riding school, women lead the way


(CNN) — In the wind-sculpted stretch of sand just outside the air-conditioned metropolis of Dubai, sits the first officially licensed school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) dedicated to teaching camel riding.

For a country with a strong cultural connection to these animals, it may seem surprising that there aren’t more such schools. What is even more surprising is that in a traditionally male-dominated practice like camel riding, one of the two founders of the Arabian Desert Camel Riding Center (ADCRC) is a woman, a 30-year-old German expat, Linda Krockenberger.

The school was established in January 2021 just over 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Dubai, on the edge of the Al Marmoom desert in an agricultural colony called Al Lisaili. In this socially conservative neighborhood, Krockenberger says it’s rare to see women walking the streets — and before school arrived, women here never rode camels.

The school now has 30 regular riders, most of whom are women. “Initially, we didn’t specifically target women,” she says. “The fact that I was female and part of the school, people saw it as unique and it got a lot of attention.”

Camel ride for all

For thousands of years, the Arabian Peninsula has been home to domesticated camels. Camels, a single-humped species also known as the Arabian camel, were historically used for transportation and as a source of milk, meat, wool, and hide.

These days, camel festivals are popular in the UAE and camel races are big business, featuring robot jockeys and with prize money for the biggest races reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Krockenberger moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2015 to work in the hospitality industry and fell in love with the desert environment. After riding horses in Germany, she now wanted to try camels. She says she spent years trying to find someone in Dubai who could provide her with space to ride them, but her gender was a hindrance.

“The only response I got was ‘you can ride but only if we ride at night, in the dark’ or ‘it will be nice if you can dress like a boy’,” she said. “I couldn’t do that. I don’t want to do something that’s considered inappropriate.”

“It was a big conflict for me,” she continues. “I wanted to be reassured that we can dress modestly and be culturally appropriate, but we can be women.”

Driving in the desert.

ADRCR

She eventually found a willing teacher and mentor in Obaid Al Falasi, 52, an Emirati who has worked with camels throughout his life. With her guidance, Krockenberger mastered camel riding and together they decided to open the school, making it accessible to anyone who wanted to learn.

Aided by Al Falasi’s respected position in the community, Krockenberger says they secured the first-ever license for a camel riding center in the UAE.

She explains that the center being licensed is the only way for women to ride camels, “otherwise it is not culturally acceptable”.

“The fact that we’re officially recognized is really important,” says Krockenberger. “What we do has wider implications for women in the region because we do it in an institutional capacity. There is validation that then slowly trickles down to the communities.”

Krockenberger says female cyclists initially felt they needed to show the community that they could ride safely. “During the first outings, we took the tension with us,” she says. “We felt like this was the only chance to prove that women can ride too. So we didn’t want to waste our opportunity.”

Having made their point, the women took their riding to the next level, with Krockenberger creating the country’s first all-female camel racing team. The ADCRC hosted the first official women’s camel race in the United Arab Emirates in November 2021, watched by over 200 spectators, with more races planned.

In Dubai’s first camel riding school, women lead the way

A rider from the Arabian Desert Camel Riding Center competes in a women’s race.

Khalifa Qabael

The camels can run up to 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour) and are ridden in the traditional way without the use of metal stirrups. And unlike most camel racing, his team doesn’t use whips. But for those who just want riding lessons, the pace is much calmer.

“Camels are super smart and very emotional,” says Krockenberger. “And they form very strong bonds with individuals. It’s about mastering the relationship with the animal…but a camel will always be a bit wild.”

Rediscover heritage

Lessons are around $40, with member discounts. “At first we didn’t take in a lot of Emirati women just because it was unheard of,” says Krockenberger. “But now there is a very strong idea of ​​Emirati women cultivating or remembering and rediscovering their heritage, and camel riding is one way for them to do that.”

The center has had more than 40 Emirati women riding with them, and seven of them are regular riders.

Aisha Khoory, a 35-year-old housewife, started attending school this month. She says it helps her feel connected to Emirati culture. “Riding camels reminds me of how people used to travel not too long ago,” she says, adding that she finds camels calm and easy to handle. “The experience gives you a boost of positive energy.”

Krockenberger says his regular runners describe it as a form of meditation and adds that the experience is open to anyone.

“Women, young people, seniors, expatriates, locals, they are part of this environment by sharing a common passion”, she says.


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