The first officially recognised school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) devoted to teaching camel riding is located in an expanse of wind-carved sand just outside of the air-conditioned metropolis of Dubai. Camels were historically important in the area. Even more surprising is the fact that 30-year-old German ex-pat Linda Krockenberger is one of the two founders of the Arabian Desert Camel Riding Centre (ADCRC), a field traditionally dominated by men. The first certified camel riding school in Dubai was led by Linda Krockenberger. She is conversing with farmers in Arabic at a sandy camel farm outside of Dubai, where the city disappears into the desert, while adjusting a rope here and patting a hump there. A young, soft-spoken German woman might seem out of place in this setting, but as the co-founder of the first camel riding school to receive official authorisation from the United Arab Emirates, she feels right at home.
In the past of the area, camels have been significant. It is believed that the dromedary, a single-humped camel that can be found throughout the Arabian Peninsula, was domesticated here up to 5,000 years ago. It was then used as a mode of transportation, a means of carrying goods along trade routes, and a source of wool, milk, meat, and leather. They can now be seen most frequently in the distance from a desert highway or at resorts and camps where taking a quick camel ride is a popular activity.
A farming community called Al Lisaili, just over 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Dubai and on the edge of the Al Marmoom desert, is where the school was founded in January 2021. According to Krockenberger, it’s unusual to see women walking in the streets in this traditionally conservative neighbourhood, and women here never rode camels before the school opened. The majority of the 30 regular riders at the school are female. “We didn’t initially target women specifically,” she says. “The fact that I am a woman and am a student at the school attracted a lot of attention because it was unusual.”
Dromedary camels have been domesticated and roamed the Arabian Peninsula for countless years. Dromedaries are single-humped animals that are also referred to as Arabian camels. Historically, they have been used for transportation as well as for their milk, meat, wool, and hide. Nowadays, camel festivals are common in the UAE, and camel racing is big business, with robot jockeys and prize money that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars for the biggest competitions. In 2015, Krockenberger relocated to the UAE to work in the hospitality industry and fell in love with the desert landscape. She wanted to ride camels because she had ridden horses in Germany. She claims she looked for years in Dubai for someone who could give her a place to ride them, but her gender was a barrier. She claims that the only replies she ever got were, “You can ride, but only if we ride at night, in the dark,” or “It will be good if you can dress like a boy.” I couldn’t pull that off. I’m not interested in acting in an improper manner. She continues, “That was a big conflict for me.” I needed reassurance that women can be women while dressing modestly and acting in a way that is appropriate for their culture. Obaid Al Falasi, 52, an Emirati man who has worked with camels all of his life, became her eventual mentor and teacher. Krockenberger learned to ride a camel under his instruction, and the two of them decided to open the school so that anyone who wanted to learn could enroll. Krockenberger claims that Al Falasi’s respected standing in the community helped them win the UAE’s first-ever licence for a camel riding centre. The only way for women to ride camels, she explains, is at a centre that has a licence because “otherwise, it’s culturally unacceptable.”
Krockenberger asserts that “the fact that we are recognised officially is really important.” Because we act in an institutional capacity, what we do has wider implications for women in the region. When there is validation, communities gradually receive it. According to Krockenberger, the female riders at first believed they had to prove to the neighbourhood that they could ride safely. For the first few rides, she claims, “we carried tension with us.” “We believed that it was our best chance to demonstrate that women can ride, too. Therefore, we didn’t want to blow our chance.
Krockenberger founded the first all-female camel racing team in the nation after the women had established their point and advanced their riding skills. More than 200 spectators watched the first official women’s camel race held in the UAE by the ADCRC in November 2021, and additional races are planned. The camels are ridden in the traditional manner without the use of metal stirrups and are capable of speeds of up to 40 miles per hour (64 kilometres per hour). Additionally, her team doesn’t use whips, which is unusual in camel races. The pace is much more leisurely for those who simply want riding lessons, though.
Krockenberger claims that camels are extremely emotional and intelligent, and they establish very strong bonds with specific individuals. A camel will always have a small amount of feral behaviour; it’s about learning how to master your relationship with the animal. Krockenberger had no intention of opening a school. She was a skilled equestrian who used horseback riding as a way to get outside and enjoy nature back in Germany. When she moved to the UAE, she looked for ways to carry on her outdoor exploration. Krockenberger decided to look into opportunities to experience the desert with camels, animals that are historically much better adapted to the conditions. She was never comfortable riding horses in desert conditions because she felt that they weren’t used to the terrain or climate.
But when she made inquiries about nearby camel farms, her request turned out to be peculiar. “Nobody knew what to make of the custom of women riding camels,” she says, adding that it had kind of vanished. One location said that you could come, but that you should train at night and perhaps dress like a boy to make it less obvious. She then met Obaid Al Falasi, an Emirati man who has lived his entire life around camels and who owns Farm 130 in Lisaili, a farming community where it is possible to see hundreds of camels being exercised in the early morning, including many cuddly babies. According to Krockenberger, “Obaid understood exactly what I was looking for very quickly.”
Al Falasi registered ADCRC under a category that had never before existed—camel riding schools—with the Dubai Economic Department. We became accredited by the Dubai Camel Racing Club and registered with the Dubai Sports Council as well. We were also the first individuals in the nation to possess Camel Jockey Trainer licences, according to Krockenberger. The school currently has 11 camels and about 23 regular riders, with additional riders arriving on a less frequent basis. “All of the camels belong to Obaid, and the majority of them have raced in the past but are no longer suitable due to age or poor performance.” Animal welfare is significant to us not only because it aligns with our values but also because it’s necessary to complete such a project in the modern world. I consider that to be advantageous. “In order to change something, we must also become a part of it,” claims Krockenberger. In order to prevent overwork, back-to-back lessons are not offered, and camels are used in a rotating fashion at the school. We never put two adults on one animal, as is typical at some tourist attractions, and we have weight restrictions for riders. “Maintaining healthy, well-cared-for animals is in everyone’s interest in all respects.”
Additionally, Krockenberger recently unveiled the first women’s camel racing team in the UAE, which consists of mostly seasoned horse riders from Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, and Russia. She has come a long way from her initial objective of simply finding a training facility. Additionally, a small but growing number of Emirati women are beginning to attend her school and rediscover the significance of camels in their own culture. Bedouin women used to ride and tend camels in the past because everyone in the family was in charge of caring for livestock. Men, women, and children who lived as semi-nomads would ride camels as their primary mode of transportation.
A lawyer from Dubai named Salha Albasti first saw camels up close while competing in a race through the seven emirates. They kept following me while I was running because they thought I had food. I was terrified of them ever since,” she claims. Albasti discovered the school after viewing pictures that a friend had uploaded online. To be completely honest, I was initially more interested in Linda than the camels. She laughs and asks, “Who was this German woman here teaching people to ride?” To overcome her fear, she made the decision to give it a try. I kept asking myself, ‘Why am I here?’ for the first 15 minutes of riding the camel. She asks, “What am I doing?” She now rides two times per week. She claims that “learning to ride camels has changed me.” “It’s difficult to explain how, but I believe that all the challenges we’ve faced over the past few months have somehow healed me. Now that I’m calmer, I feel more balanced. I don’t really know why, but I attribute it to being around camels. She also greatly appreciates the opportunities Krockenberger has provided for people to train in a warm, welcoming environment, especially for women. “I’m proud that camels are a part of our culture.” “However, Linda’s creation of a space where we can all learn makes me proud of her,” she says.
Khadija Yousif Saeed is a young Emirati woman who just recently learned about the school. Because they are so large, she admits that she was initially uneasy. But it’s almost like meditating when you’re on the camel, and he’s moving so slowly. You’re only focusing on the gait of his walk and not anything else. It’s a satisfying feeling. Albasti and Saeed both want to persuade more Emiratis—particularly women—to join. Our culture includes camels, but we don’t know enough about them. “Even if they don’t want to train or ride, I would love for more people to visit the school,” says Saeed. It’s critical that the next generation understand the history of camels and their significance.