How Swizz Beatz Climbed to the Top of Saudi Arabia’s Camel Racing Scene - The World News

How Swizz Beatz Climbed to the Top of Saudi Arabia’s Camel Racing Scene

As the Arabian Peninsula’s fastest camels galloped around a track in the Saudi desert, Kasseem Dean, a Grammy Award-winning hip-hop producer from the Bronx, watched nervously from an air-conditioned V.I.P. viewing hall.

Waiters in black vests plied the crowd with lemonade and red velvet cupcakes. Women in sundresses milled around off-white sofas, sipping fizzy mocktails.

Though the camels sprinting past were the main event, Mr. Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz, felt as if all eyes in the room were on him — one of the newest competitors in Saudi Arabia’s deep-pocketed camel racing scene. Four years since he entered and won his first race, he has spent millions of dollars to buy 48 racing camels, ascending into the most elite circles of the sport.

“When you discover it, you enter into a whole other world,” said Mr. Dean, 45, whose team of camels, “Saudi Bronx,” has won trophies across the region and deepened his attachment to the kingdom, which he first visited in 2006.

He now travels to Saudi Arabia so often that he considers it a second home. He is a co-founder of a roller-skating rink in the desert retreat of AlUla, where the camel race was held, and keeps an apartment in the capital, Riyadh; a few years ago, he was granted Saudi citizenship.

All of this would have been highly improbable not long ago. But the absurd has become ordinary in the new Saudi Arabia, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unleashes seismic social changes while deepening political repression, reshaping the conservative Islamic country in the process.

Ten years ago, music and gender mixing were effectively banned in public. Today, young Saudis dance at raves in abandoned hospitals, and women — who until 2018 had been barred from driving — are increasingly living on their own, buying apartments and driving themselves to work.

The 38-year-old crown prince is an avowed authoritarian, and he has coupled the social opening with a crackdown on dissent, detaining hundreds of critical Saudis across the political spectrum. In January, Manahel al-Otaibi — a fitness instructor who had campaigned on social media against Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship over women, which Prince Mohammed has largely dismantled — was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

But the prince has a keen interest in using the kingdom’s oil wealth to build soft power, crafting a more welcoming image by promoting Saudi culture, art and cuisine, and winning over politicians and tourists alike.

Camel racing, a sport beloved by Bedouins across the Arabian Peninsula, is a small part of that push. The kingdom’s goal is for it to become “an internationally recognized sport,” Mahmoud al-Balawi, head of the Saudi Camel Racing Federation, said in an interview.

Basma Khalifa, a 42-year-old woman from AlUla who was attending the camel race, said, “It’s really nice for the foreigners to come,” adding, “Just like we know their culture, they get to know our culture.”

While Mr. Dean was once an outlier, American celebrities appear in Saudi Arabia regularly now, often drawn by lucrative deals, and no longer deterred by the frequent criticism of the kingdom by human rights groups. Many of them end up in AlUla, an area filled with twisted rock formations and ancient ruins that is the centerpiece of Prince Mohammed’s drive to turn the kingdom into a global tourism destination.

Will Smith visited last year, attending a camel race with Mr. Dean. Johnny Depp posed for a selfie in AlUla with Saudi Arabia’s culture minister. Even the elusive hip-hop star Lauryn Hill performed in AlUla recently.

“It’s funny to see,” Mr. Dean said. “Especially going back to the people that were criticizing me and telling me not to go, and now they’re asking me what’s the best place to stay.”

At the tournament in AlUla, held this spring, camels foamed at the mouth from exertion as they ran around the windswept track, knees wobbling. Instead of jockeys, robots sat on their backs — a change made years ago after the practice of using child jockeys was found to be riddled with human rights abuses. A herd of SUVs followed closely, filled with trainers commanding the robots by remote control.

Behind the velvet ropes of the V.I.P. section, Mr. Dean was seated near the head of the racing federation and surrounded by Saudi princes. They cheered him on for a victory and reassured him when one of his camels, Enzo, came in fourth place instead — helping Mr. Dean win around $200,000 from the total prize pot of more than $20 million.

Mr. Dean’s Saudi citizenship is a sign that powerful Saudis consider his relationship with the kingdom valuable; citizenship is a rare privilege, bestowed by royal edict and unobtainable even for most second- or third-generation foreign residents. Many celebrities and social media influencers who have come to Saudi Arabia in recent years are attracted by sponsorships or deals, but Mr. Dean said that was not what drew him there.

“You could easily come to Saudi and be transactional — there’s endless opportunities,” he said. “But I just wanted to have the freedom to just have fun.”

Born in the Bronx and married to the singer Alicia Keys, Mr. Dean has worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West, among other artists. He once rapped that he was “hood rich.” These days, he is just regular rich — very rich, actually, replete with corporate deals, board memberships, and investments in real estate and contemporary art.

He is Muslim, and his grandfather performed pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. So when Mr. Dean first visited the kingdom in 2006, traveling there did not seem like such a strange idea.

He returned often and found himself fascinated by camel racing. Several years ago, he decided to explore it for himself. He called Saudi friends to help him search for the best camel trainers and started assembling his team.

As a rookie to the sport, Mr. Dean made mistakes, selling some of his fastest camels when competitors offered him enormous sums.

Now he understands how seriously people take the sport, and that some of the Emirati and Qatari sheikhs he competes against can spend millions of dollars on a single camel. He leaves the decisions about which camels to buy, and how to race them, to his Saudi trainers.

“I’m just bringing the cool factor to it,” Mr. Dean said.

After the races in AlUla finished, Ms. Keys, his wife, called him, and he flipped his phone camera around to show her a sandstorm brewing outside.

On his way out, he strolled through the venue with a glass of pomegranate juice, stopping for photos with curious onlookers. Few people in the camel racing world know him for his music, and he loves that.

“It’s like I’m a whole new person,” he said.

As darkness fell, he visited a pop-up shop near the racetrack where his Saudi Bronx-branded merchandise was for sale. Among the offerings: an $80 T-shirt that depicted the hip-hop star Tupac Shakur in a Saudi headdress.

Falih al-Buluwi, a prominent camel trainer who has worked with Mr. Dean, entered the shop with an entourage of half a dozen men. They posed for photographs with him and danced to Saudi music together, clapping and swaying.

Mr. Dean once lost friends and business over his association with Saudi Arabia, he said. But he ignores the criticism of that, arguing that “no place is perfect.”

“Hate across the world would be less if people traveled more and spent time with different cultures,” he said.

That evening, he stepped into the D.J. booth of the roller skating rink he had helped found in AlUla.

Disco balls sent lights dancing across the floor as he played classics by Saudi singers, intermingling them with retro hip-hop hits.

Scores of people watched from the sidelines as skaters circled the open-sky rink, some skilled and others uncertain, tumbling to the ground. A man wearing a traditional white robe hiked it up around his knees and ventured out shakily, grasping a friend’s hand for balance.

“Saudi Arabiaaaa!” Mr. Dean shouted, as the beat dropped on a Snoop Dogg song.

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