“I’m in the middle of some beautiful rocks,” says Grammy award-winning record producer Kasseem Daoud Dean aka Swizz Beatz of his AlUla surroundings. The ancient oasis in northwestern Saudi Arabia boasts soaring red sandstone cliffs. “It feels like I’m on Mars,” continues Dean, who couldn’t be further from his New York base where he cultivates his two-decade-long music career, working with everyone from Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Gwen Stefani. He’s arrived in Saudi for the inaugural Camel Cup, as part of a venture most of his friends, family, and fans never saw coming – camel racing.
The proud owner of a camel team named Saudi Bronx, Dean was invited to compete at the pinnacle event in the sport this March. “I just fell in love with camel racing,” he says, while reminiscing on his travels in the country and the wider region over the years. “From the beginning of time, the camel has been the most important form of transportation.” The producer took the plunge in 2020 and became the first-ever American to compete in the sport, purchasing 43 animals (many of which he’s named after family members – one for his wife, Alicia Keys; five for his children; one for his grandmother, and so on). He has also employed 50 people in the region to care for the herd, including two of the best trainers in the business, Hamad Almirri and Feleh Albulowi. Dean’s presence at events is certainly turning heads in Saudi and abroad. “This thing has gone global now,” he admits. Camel racing has been practiced in the Middle East since before the pre-Islamic era. Races started between Bedouin tribes to show off the ability of their majestic animals that, contrary to popular belief, are far from slow – camels can run at top speeds of 60km/h.
“Camel racing has been etched into Saudi Arabia’s sporting and cultural landscape since the seventh century,” explains Phillip Jones, chief tourism officer of the Royal Commission for AlUla. “The ‘ships of the desert’ are part of AlUla’s history and identity, as evidenced by camels visible in [ancient] rock art discovered here,” making it a meaningful site for the race under the patronage of His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, chairman of the Royal Commission for AlUla. But a lot has changed, and modern-day races now use electric jockeys with radios to communicate with the animals from afar. Owners and trainers “drive cars on the side, to keep up with the camels,” says Dean. These days, pedigree camels cost as much as sports cars, ranging from US$50 000 to millions of dollars.
Dean is onto a winning formula – not one but three camels were entered into the Camel Cup, which has a prize fund of $21 million. Ultimately, Emirati brothers Hamad and Saeed Al Katbi won the final this March and claimed the highest purses. The AlUla Camel Cup has the biggest combined prize pot for a camel racing event. Other Middle East editions have offered similar amounts in the past, but no one currently offers a pool of more than 20 million for camel racing. “It’s like going to the Olympics,” says Dean. “It’s like having three all-stars.”
The Saudi Bronx team has an impressive record in the region already, winning 20 races around the GCC, including in Oman, Qatar, and Dubai. His secret to success? “I have the best trainers,” states Dean. “Hamad and his family have been in this business for more than 100 years. He is a superstar himself. You’d have thought he’d had a hit record the way everybody comes up to him at the track and takes selfies,” says Dean. “For him to even accept to be my trainer was the biggest deal. The entire GCC wants him to train their camels.”
Saudi Bronx may thrive on experience and tried-and-tested methods, but it’s far from a traditional camel racing team. “Saudi Bronx is a lifestyle,” maintains Dean, who hopes his team will help promote cultural exchange and attract young people in the region and beyond through a number of access points – including merchandise, clothing, and music related to the sport. Along with race playlists on Spotify, the producer has created a new track with Saudi rapper $kinny. “Ralph Lauren started with polo,” says Dean. “Red Bull started with an energy drink and turned it into a lifestyle … we’re putting [camel racing] in front of people, and it’s all a discovery,” he recounts. “A kid from the Bronx might see this and say, ‘Wow, Swizz is from where I’m from, and all the way over there, doing something cool like this.’”
Having a camel team also gives to the wider community, maintains Dean, “It feeds so many families in the surrounding areas, and in the villages,” he offers of the people he employs as part of Saudi Bronx. Camel racing is only the start of his investments in the region. The producer has partnered up with Saudi entrepreneur Noor Taher to launch the global creative agency Good Intentions, which has developed art projects in Jeddah and helped launch a free skating rink in AlUla, open for the public every day. “We see it as therapy. It’s something that can change people’s energy,” says Dean of the facility. The pair are also opening a venue in the industrial Jax area in Diriyah. “It’s going to be a free creative space where artists can come and submit their ideas, art projects, their fashion projects, and anything else creative,” he explains.
“Everything changed when Saudi Bronx arrived on the scene,” says Taher, who got the call about Dean’s plans four years ago. “First, I was a little shocked,” she says, but “as with everything he does, he likes to disrupt and usher in the new. People from all over the world are connecting to the brand and camel racing – who knew?”
Dean hopes his new ventures will encourage people to be “open-minded, learn new things, and be educated on what they might not understand,” because, he says, “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Vogue Man Arabia