Camel racing has a long history in the Middle East, though traditionally it occurred during holiday celebrations and special events. But as the Persian Gulf emirates began to enjoy a greater degree of wealth, this sport evolved into a high-stakes endeavor – and it was decided that having young boys as camel jockeys would enable the animals to run faster.
As Vic Sarin’s disturbing documentary shows, camel jockeys recruited for this sport came at a brutal price: boys as young as three who were either trafficked or sold by their parents in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sudan and Mauritania. These children were often physically abused and sexually assaulted by the camel racing trainers, and many boys were either severely injured or killed during the dangerous races.
Anti-slavery advocates stumbled upon this situation almost by accident – and in Dubai, which was the epicenter for this disgusting practice, the embassies of the nations where the boys came from refused to get involved, fearing that their protests would disrupt lucrative business dealings with the emirate’s government. However, news reports and an HBO documentary on the topic created a political embarrassment for the media-savvy Dubai leadership, resulting in the boys being taken from their near-imprisonment in the camel racing farms and expatriated back to their countries.
Sarin manages to interview a large number of former camel jockeys, as well as their now-remorseful parents. “Desert Riders” is a meticulously researched yet emotionally devastating expose of child abuse in one of the richest corners of the world, and Sarin deserves endless praise for shining a harsh light on this miserable aspect of Dubai’s culture.