DHAYD, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- Sheik Abdulaziz bin Mohammed Qassimi sat in his wine-colored Range Rover and watched as the first rays of dawn appeared over the Sharqiyin Mountains to the east.

When he judged the light right he muttered "khalas" -- or "finished" -- and nodded to a bearded bodyguard in a flowing white robe. The man stepped behind a line of camels, each mounted by a small boy. He raised his Soviet-made Kalashnikov assault rifle and fired a single shot into the pinkening sky.

Suddenly, excited cries mixed with the resounding thwack of riders' canes hitting camel rumps and the dull thud of camel feet pounding the sand. In a cloud of dust and noise, the camels raced away on a straight track leveled among desert dunes at the edge of this small oasis town.

While world powers fretted about the nearby Persian Gulf war, the ruling class of the emirates, which line the gulf's southern rim, were seeking distraction in a pastime that reminds them of a simpler era.

In this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, where oil wealth has obscured much of the country's Bedouin heritage with modern skyscrapers, superhighways and American-style supermarkets, camel racing is a reminder of this land's ancient culture.

Yet even here, technology intrudes. As the camels with their child jockeys raced into an obscuring haze of dust, the sheiks and their retainers careened in pursuit along a parallel track in four-wheel-drive Range Rovers and an occasional Bentley limousine. Camel trainers radioed advice to the riders with walkie-talkies.

Camel racing "is an old and honored tradition among our people," said the 48-year-old Sheik Abdulaziz. He is the deputy ruler of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates, or principalities, that compose the United Arab Emirates.

"Thirty or 35 years ago, when I was young, I remember we used to have them twice a year along a narrow valley in the desert," he said.

Now Abdulaziz owns 36 racing camels, and the races have changed. The emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Umm Qaiwain have spent millions of dollars in the past five years building special camel racecourses complete with modern grandstands where the sheiks can sip their coffee and follow the races by television monitor. The races are held twice a week from October to April.

Abdulaziz emphasizes the races' links with tradition. "It is our local culture, our customs," he said as he sipped Arab coffee in his vehicle between two of the morning's 10 races.

"The camel is sort of a part of the people," he said. "The Bedouin lived all their life for the milk and the meat of the camel and also for the riding for the crossing of the desert."

He added that he encourages the camel races because as a man "responsible for this area, I have to keep the tribes happy."

But the races here and at dozens of other racecourses throughout the country are also a contest of pride and spending power among the wealthy sheiks who lead its elite classes.

The races have become more professional and, in some ways, less Arab. While camels used to be raced by adult Bedouin riders, the sheiks now import professional child jockeys, most of them tiny 5- and 6-year-olds from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"Arab riders are the best camel riders in the world," said Khaled Qureshi, a nurse from Lahore, Pakistan, who has worked at Dhayd's hospital for the past 16 years.

"But for racing they need little babies, 5 and 6 years old, who weigh no more than 15 or 20 kilos {33 to 44 pounds}," Qureshi said. "These they find in {Pakistan's} Baluchistan desert or in Bangladesh."

The young jockeys, who stand among the camel handlers in the fenced-in paddock waiting for their turns to ride, are readily identified by the strips of Velcro sewn inside their minuscule trousers.

In the past, riders were tied down to the camels behind the hump so they would not fall off during the races. But modern camel-racing saddles are made of Velcro -- and along with the bellowing and burping of long-necked camels, one of the most distinctive sounds of a race is the sharp rasping sound of riders being mounted and unmounted from their steeds.

The jockeys "come here with their fathers or other relatives and are given food, clothing and lodging," Qureshi said. "Their fathers are paid 600 to 700 dirhams {$164 to $192} a month."

It remains a risky and short-lived occupation.

Ambulances attend every race, attesting that even Velcro saddles may not protect against the hazards of a fall from a towering, loping camel. Camels sometimes cross the finish line without their riders.

Qureshi, an avid race fan, says falls are infrequent. "Yesterday there was one, the day before none and today, insha' Allah {God willing}, there will be none." There was none.

Qureshi shrugs off the dangers to the riders. "They are so small that if they fall, they are like a ball," he said. "They bounce and roll but rarely hurt themselves."

As soon as a rider begins to grow and put on weight he becomes less desirable. His career can end by the age of 8 or 10, even though 10 years is the legal minimum age for camel jockeys.

The camels, their trainers and handlers come largely from other parts of the Arab world.

Sudanese and Omanis are preferred for their traditional expertise in handling camels, while the most sought-after camels come from Sudan as well.

The only thing indigenous about modern camel races here is the ownership of the beasts and their stables. A racing camel is a prestige item for the sheiks, on a par with hunting falcons and Rolls-Royces.

"A good camel today can sell for 3 million dirhams," or about $822,000, said a wizened sheik named Hamad who stood waiting for a young rider, wearing hand-made racing silks, to mount one of the five racing camels he owned.

The objective is not making money. Prizes in the races are usually tokens and betting is forbidden by the Koran, the Moslem scriptures.

Rather, say some of the sheiks themselves, it is one-upmanship.

"It isn't the prizes we race for," said one sheik, who had six camels in the race here. "It is to see who has the best camel. That is what matters."