A huge, beaming grin is plastered across Zafar’s face as he returns to the cool shade of the air-conditioned portacabin that he, along with three others, calls home in the harsh desert terrain of ‘outback’ UAE. The brown envelop clutched tightly in his work-worn hands contains the monthly payment for his job as a ‘camel tender’: a job he adores and a life he loves.Recruited from his native Balochistan four years ago, he considers himself to be very blessed, indeed, and with free accommodation, free food, free medical and other perks, plus, the kingly sum of Dirham’s 700 a month - this is equivalent to approximately Rs19,000 - he is one exceedingly happy young man, indeed. Burnt to a crisp by desert sun and wind, his dark face is a mirror image of the other half dozen men from Balochistan and Sindh, who have crowded into this cool room to share camel milk tea and talk with my companion and myself with upwards of another three, possibly four dozen men milling around performing this, that and the other camel related tasks outside in the vicious heat and wind of a July afternoon.Back in job-starved Pakistan, these men and countless others from similar backgrounds, are highly unlikely to find work of any kind and if they do, then a monthly income of maybe Rs2,000 to Rs5,000 is just about all they can ever dream off and this is unlikely to be on any kind of permanent basis. Therefore, illiterate as they are, work in the UAE is a dream come true and, even though they see their families for just two months every other year, both the actual worker and their family back home are thankful for this ‘high’ income. That allows them to live a life of comparative luxury if not, aside from the worker, downright ease.They can also, as is demonstrated by Jahangir from Sindh, work their way up the ranks to earn the astronomical sum of approximately Rs40,000 a month and all, irrespective of designated job, are, when the racing camels they so lovingly tend happen to win a race, awarded bonuses in both cash and kind by satisfied camel owners, who bask in the esteem of the incredibly competitive racing community and who are prepared, and do, pay a king’s ransom for the off-spring of the winning animals.“I came here 20 years ago,” says a visibly happy Jahangir. “I was just five years old and came as a camel jockey.” Life as a camel jockey was cruel in the extreme: starved if their weight crossed the 20kg limit, forced to work even if ill, falling to their deaths between the legs of speeding camels and often suffering internal injuries if they managed to hang on - the litany of neglect and abuse was horrendous and, even 20 years down the line, Jahangir shudders as he recalls his initial few years.Overtime and as Jahangir grew and became both too tall and too heavy to continue as a camel jockey, he began, as a survivor who had adapted well and who had earned his employers trust, his upward rise to, at just 25 years of age, manager of the prestigious racing camel farm around which his life revolves.Over time, he has been able to bring first brothers, then parents and then his and his brothers’ wives and children to reside, now on a permanent basis, in what is, to so many others from around the world, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and where, unlike himself, his children have the opportunity to gain an excellent education and a vastly different future than if they had remained in the tiny Sindhi village, which is their ancestral home.Roaring across rough, desert tracks in the luxurious 4x4 vehicle that goes with his job, Jahangir beams as he explains why his own sons are not, even though right here in the UAE, destined to suffer the terrors of being camel jockeys like he did himself. “These days the camels here are not ridden by little boys,” he explains. “They are ridden by comparatively tiny robots, controlled via radio. These very light-weight robots allow the camels to race faster than ever - as if they have nothing at all on their backs and, like real live camel jockeys, each robot is dressed in the bright colours of its owner so that the leading, then winning, camel, can be easily identified from afar.”While vulnerable young boys are thus saved from the horrific fate of becoming camel jockeys, this in large part due to vociferous protests made by a variety of none-UAE based civil rights and child protection activists, the camels themselves do not, as yet, fare so well: the deep gashes and cuts caused by the thrashing of robotic whips giving the game away.“There is a drill machine inside each robot,” Jahangir says, as he undresses a robot to display its insides. “The problem is that these machines have a tendency to malfunction and, when they do, they jam on at full and the whip they control hits the camel so fast that, before the mechanism burns out, the camel is badly injured and loses a lot of blood.”Obviously, very concerned about the wellbeing of the camels under his charge, Jahangir is relieved that real live camel jockeys are no longer used. But is equally concerned about the inexplicably slow improvements of the robotic riders that injure his much loved charges.“Maybe one day - and I hope it comes soon - the camels will race without the need for any riders at all,” he says with the intense light of hope in his eyes. “ That day will be a blessing for us all and most especially for the camels.”

The writer has authored a book titled “The Gun Tree:  One Woman’s War” and lives in Bhurban.