From a distance, it seemed as if nothing had changed. In the dawn light at the Nad Al Sheba racetrack on the outskirts of Dubai, jockeys perched precariously on galloping camels - tiny, rigid and not entirely in control of proceedings. Given the UAE's history when it comes to its camel racing industry's record on child labour, you'd be forgiven for being mistaken.
The country has been pilloried over its use of child camel jockeys - with thousands of boys as young as four, usually smuggled from Pakistan and Bangladesh, either being sold by destitute parents or kidnapped to ride on the Emirates' lucrative racing circuit. Successive laws banning the practice had little impact, but an unlikely, high-tech saviour - the robot jockey - has emerged to solve one of the Gulf's worst human-rights issues.
Camel racing is huge in the UAE. Race days attract thousands of locals, while the best camels change hands for millions of dollars. Despite the sums involved, little was spared for the child jockeys that steered the animals to victory, a situation vividly highlighted in HBO's 2005 award-winning documentary The Sport of Sheikhs. The film showed how child jockeys were starved to keep their weight down and beaten to ensure they stayed in line. In the film's darkest moment, many admitted to being raped repeatedly. Dozens died falling off during races.
The story of skeletal, sexually abused children crushed to death on race day did little for the image of the UAE, which is keen to diversify from oil and into the lucrative area of tourism. But attempts at stamping out the abuse through legislation had failed. So the government took the step of paying the Swiss robotics firm K-Team $1.3m to develop the technology to render child riders obsolete. The resulting lightweight robot jockeys work by mimicking the movements of a human rider while the owners, following the race in their 4x4s, can manipulate their rider by remote control.
At a stroke, the market for child jockeys disappeared and the authorities began to repatriate the children back to their homelands. According to a local Unicef official, more than 1,000 children have been sent back to their families. "The robot jockey came as a great solution," he said.
After the race, the owners collected their robots, complete with silks, hard hat and covered in camel pheromone (used to stop the animal rejecting its unconventional rider), and hurled them into pick-up trucks - strange considering the value of their cargo.
On closer inspection, all became clear. The robot jockeys weren't the costly Swiss cyborgs, but large, dressed-up sacks of rice with a cheap motor jammed into the side and a whip glued at the end. Solving the child jockey problem did not require a high-tech solution after all.