Home News How Swizz Beatz reached the top of Saudi Arabia’s camel racing scene

How Swizz Beatz reached the top of Saudi Arabia’s camel racing scene


As the fastest camels in the Arabian Peninsula galloped around a track in the Saudi desert, Kasseem Dean, a Grammy-winning hip-hop producer from the Bronx, watched nervously from an air-conditioned VIP viewing room.

Waiters in black vests served lemonade and red velvet cupcakes to the crowd, while women in sundresses sat around white sofas, sipping bubbly mocktails.

While the racing camels were the main attraction, Mr. Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz, felt all eyes in the room were on him — one of the newest entrants into Saudi Arabia’s deep-pocketed camel racing scene. In the four years since he entered and won his first race, he has spent millions of dollars on 48 racing camels, entering the sport’s most elite circle.

“When you discover it, you enter a whole new world,” said Dean, 45, whose camel team, the Saudi Bronx, has won trophies in the region and deepened his love for the kingdom, which he first visited in 2006.

He now visits Saudi Arabia so often that he considers it his second home. Ice skating rink He currently lives in AlUla, a desert resort that hosts camel racing, and owns an apartment in the capital, Riyadh; he obtained Saudi citizenship a few years ago.

All of this would have been highly improbable not long ago. But as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launches a seismic war, the absurd has become the norm in the new Saudi Arabia. Social reform In deepening politics inhibitionand in the process reshape this conservative Islamic nation.

Ten years ago, music and the mixing of sexes in public were effectively banned. Today, Saudi youths dance in public. Carnival in an abandoned hospitalAnd women – who were banned from driving until 2018 – are getting better living standards they themselvesbuy an apartment and drive yourself to work.

The 38-year-old crown prince is a recognized dictator who has linked social openness with Suppression of dissentHundreds of Saudi politicians who were critical of the regime have been detained. Manahel Otaibi — a fitness trainer who spoke out on social media against Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship of women, which has been largely abolished by Prince Mohammed — was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

But the prince is keen to use Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth to build soft power by promoting Saudi culture, art and gourmet foodand win politician and Visitors Same.

Camel racing, a sport enjoyed by Bedouins in the Arabian Peninsula, is a small part of the sport. Mahmoud al-Balawi, president of the Saudi Camel Racing Federation, said in an interview that Saudi Arabia’s goal is to make camel racing “an internationally recognized sport.”

“It’s great that foreigners are coming,” said Basma Khalifa, a 42-year-old AlUla woman participating in the camel race, adding, “They understand our culture just as we understand their culture.”

While Mr. Dean was once an outlier, American celebrities now frequently appear in Saudi Arabia, often because Profitable tradeMany of them end up in AlUla, a region filled with twisted rock formations and ancient ruins that was transformed into a kingdom by Prince Mohammed. Global tourist destinations.

Will Smith was here last year. Participate in camel racing and Mr. Dean. Johnny Depp Selfie Meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture in AlUla. Even mysterious hip-hop star Lauryn Hill performed in AlUla recently.

“It’s funny,” Mr. Dean said. “Especially thinking back to the people who criticized me and told me not to go, now they’re asking me where the best place to stay is.”

Camels raced on a windswept track in AlUla this spring, their knees shaking and their mouths foaming. The jockeys were no longer jockeys, but robots that sat on the camels’ backs. Changes made a few years ago The use of child jockeys has previously been found to be rife with human rights violations. Then a fleet of SUVs followed, filled with trainers who directed the robots via remote control.

Behind the velvet ropes of the VIP area, Dean sat near the president of the horse racing federation and surrounded by Saudi princes who cheered his victory and consoled him when one of his camels, Enzo, finished fourth — helping Dean win about $200,000 of more than $20 million in purses.

Mr. Dean’s Saudi citizenship suggests that powerful Saudis see value in his ties to the kingdom; citizenship is a rare privilege that Grant According to the Royal Decree and Impossible to Get This is true even for most second or third generation foreign residents. Many celebrities and Social Media Influencers Players who have come to Saudi Arabia in recent years have been attracted by sponsorships or deals, but Mr Dean said that was not what drew him here.

“You can easily come to Saudi Arabia and do business — there are endless opportunities,” he said. “But I just want to have freedom and have fun.”

Dean was born in the Bronx and is married to singer Alicia Keys. He has collaborated with artists including Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West. He once rapped about “The community is rich.” Today, he’s just a regular rich guy – very rich, in fact, with a slew of businesses tradeBoard Membership and Investment real estate and modern Art.

He is a Muslim, and his grandfather made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, so when Mr. Dean first visited Saudi Arabia in 2006, the idea of ​​traveling there didn’t seem so strange.

He returned often and found himself fascinated by camel racing. A few years ago, he decided to explore it himself. He called Saudi friends and asked them to help him find the best camel trainers and started to build his own team.

As a novice in the sport, Mr Dean made some mistakes and when competitors offered him huge sums of money he sold some of his fastest camels.

Now he understands how seriously people take the sport and that some of the Emirati and Qatari sheikhs he competes against can Spending millions of dollars He rides only one camel, and leaves it to Saudi camel trainers to decide which camels to buy and how to race them.

“I just add some cool elements to it,” Mr. Dean said.

After El-Ula’s game, his wife, Keith, called him and he flipped his phone camera to show her the dust storm brewing outside.

As he left, he strolled through the grounds with a glass of pomegranate juice, stopping to take photos with curious onlookers. Few in the camel racing world knew of his music, but he loved it.

“I feel like a completely different person,” he said.

As night fell, he visited a makeshift shop near the racetrack, where he was selling his Saudi Bronx-branded merchandise, including an $80 T-shirt featuring hip-hop star Tupac Shakur wearing a Saudi headdress.

Falih al-Buluwi, a famous camel trainer who once worked with Dean, walked into the store with an entourage of six people. They took photos with Dean and danced, clapped and swayed to Saudi music.

Dean said he had lost friends and business because of his ties to Saudi Arabia, but he brushed off criticism, arguing “no place is perfect.”

“If people traveled more and were exposed to different cultures, there would be less hatred around the world,” he said.

That night, he took to the DJ booth at the ice skating rink he helped build in AlUla.

The lights of a disco ball danced on the floor as he played classic songs by Saudi singers and fused them with retro hip-hop.

As scores of people watched from the sidelines as skaters glided around the open-air rink, some with skill and others with less skill and falling to the ground, a man in a traditional white robe pulled to his knees staggered out, holding onto a friend’s hand for balance.

“Saudi Arabia!” Mr. Dean shouted as the beat of a Snoop Dogg song dropped.

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