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Hi-jacked Jockeys Story

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Dr.Kenneth L. Wise

Senior Non-Resident Fellow -Public Policy

Tag: UAE Public Opinion
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The difference between a picture and an image may be in the eye of the beholder. A picture may freeze an instant of reality but an image lives in a larger time and space and can depart from the original picture.  This may have happened in the situation of the Anti-Slavery International (ASI) story about a camel jockey event held near Abu Dhabi.  The image the story portrayed was quite different from the pictures that ran with it.

The ASI story spawned dozens more news stories filling column inches and air waves repeating an image of youngsters on camels who are slaves forced to scramble onto the large animal's back and endanger themselves to fulfill wishes of insensitive adults, while uniformed policemen stood by watching.  This image, however, is not the reality. The wording of the current stories draws inspiration and even tired language from decades past, before the UAE outlawed human jockeys and substituted robots for them.

Camel jockeys in a now by-gone tradition were boys, from countries other than the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and very young.

A more careful or informed look at the pictures accompanying these stories should produce a different image. The merry and well-dressed children alone should have caused London viewers to pause.   However, neither the grinning and excited faces nor the fancy apparel penetrated the mental barrier that formed a contrasting image.  The international media failed to investigate the reason behind the merry faces because of their presumption that the kids were forced to take great risk against their will.

Even the ASI observers said to have been present at the event should have discovered that what they were witnessing was a spring break activity involving local kids who were just having fun riding camels. As advertised, the camel race was one of several activities for the children of Emiratis hosted by the Emirates Culture Club as part of its public festival February 9-13, an event of learning heritage-by-doing similar to those held regularly by the social development programme "Watani".  The free of charge participation, which included training and safety gear, was part of fulfilling the Clubs mandate to raise awareness of national culture among young Emiratis. In keeping with the requirements of this particular race, one of several held that day, all parents had signed consent forms similar to those completed by the parents of a junior rodeo participant in Texas. 

These forms allowed their children to participate and acknowledged the risk factors and to give the above ten group of young boys and girls a feeling of traveling with their grandfathers across the desert on camelback.  In riding they bonded with an animal that is a national symbol and experienced the thrill of an ancient sport. It was akin to holding a falcon on ones arm for the first time or pitching a tent in a sandstorm, trecking in the Rocky Mountains, white water rafting, or trail riding at a dude ranch.   

However, this innocent spring break activity was, in ASI eyes, tantamount to slavery where "children as young as ten years old are forced to take part".  Risky as they may be, these festival activities are invaluable to growing up.  They may produce some fears and tears, but the overwhelming outcome is smiles and lifelong memories. 

The eye of the beholder issue is not a case of cultural difference; it is about perception and emphasis. ASI writers chose to emphasize the risk and interpret the cultural sport against the backdrop of an Ansar Burney report and even the Sheikh Issa case. The image they saw was that of human trafficking, even though the picture was of young Emirati kids. ASI emphasized the risk even though risk is an element in gymnastics--in which injury can paralze a contestant for life, yet Nadia Comaneci won an Olympic gold medal when she was only 13.

It takes a second to capture a photo, but it takes much longer than that to wipe an image, a wise lady once said. How true that is in this context. This incident may beg a closer look at the way the media are handling news about the UAE and whether reporters and analysts are making enough effort to stay alert or even be fair about their reporting.  A closer look may well be our next project.

(Mohammed Baharoon, Kay Wise, Fatma Al Owais and the b'huth team contributed to this article)

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