A little over 100kms from Dubai, on the Gulf of Oman, lies another world. Here, the glitz, glamour and showiness, which most people associate with the United Arab Emirates, has been traded for fame and fortune of another kind.
Once a week, on a Friday afternoon, the typically quiet corniche in the modest seaside town of Fujairah is transformed. Large crowds of kandora-clad Emirati and Omani men and their families gather to watch, or participate, in the traditional sport of bull pushing.
Bull pushing, or bull butting as it’s also commonly known, has become an increasingly popular sport among the younger generation of Emirati and Omani men. And, while gambling is illegal in the Emirates, the winning title is much coveted as it can significantly increase the value of the bull, and elevate the status of both the bull and its owner within the sporting community.
Each Friday, as the afternoon shadows begin to lengthen, eager onlookers begin trickling inside the arena to choose their prime spots. While they position their chairs and begin to mingle, farm trucks reverse up to mounds of dirt moulded into ramps. Alighting from the trucks, men dressed in shalwar khamizs proceed to offload the prized cargo – bulls worth tens of thousands of Emirati Dirhams. Down the street, other bulls are led towards the arena from nearby farms. Some bulls look intimidating with their large Brahman humps and their faces painted orange, while beautiful decorative flowers hang around the necks of others. Each bull is tethered to one of the many posts at the entrance to the arena where they await their chance to take home the title.
The occasional deep, resounding bellow of an impatient bull interrupts the proceedings and penetrates the growing crowd. Occasionally they paw at the ground creating clouds of dust which hangs in the air. Others pull at their lead, sizing up their opponents.
A mixture of tension and excitement builds as the sun begins to dip. The loud speakers spring to life in Arabic. And, after the formalities, the first contestants are called to the challenge and the commentary begins. Two bulls are led into the ring by their respective owners and helpers, and a moment is taken to position them head to head. A silence descends before the official calls the start of the match and the bulls are nudged toward each other. Typically, this is the only invitation needed and the bulls lock horns. They begin manoeuvering backwards and forwards in a battle to overpower their opponent. The owners dance around their bulls, repeatedly freeing the rope so that neither animal becomes entangled or injured. The fight lasts only a few short minutes and the siren signals a winner – the bull that has pushed his opponent the furthest is deemed the stronger of the two. The bulls are led from the ring and two new opponents are brought in.
While most bulls are eager to engage in the contest of strength, the occasional bull can be seen turning tail and making a beeline out of the arena. While this may be amusing to watch for the crowd, this is usually devastating for the bull’s career and the owner’s investment in the sport. An unaggressive or losing bull has been reported in the past to have dropped in value, sometimes by tens of thousands of dirhams. This not only makes the bull difficult to resell, it also affects the owner’s standing within the sporting community. Consequently, bulls are chosen carefully at birth and great attention is given to the bull’s lineage. To increase a bull’s chance of success in the ring, training starts from an early age. Bull pushing in the Emirates and Oman is serious business, and buying and selling winners is a profitable investment.
Despite losses for some and gains for others, at the end of the day, while it’s serious business, it’s more about fun. Competitors, investors and spectators alike, having been entertained, are happy to part ways until next week, when bulls will again lock horns for the title.