How Swizz Beatz Rise to the Top of Saudi Arabia's Camel Racing Scene

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

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

Although the camels were the main event, Mr. Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz, felt like all eyes in the room were on him, one of the newest entrants in Saudi Arabia’s thriving camel racing scene. Four years after entering and winning his first race, he spent millions of dollars to purchase 48 racing camels, ascending to the sport’s most elite circles.

“When you discover it, you enter a completely different world,” said Mr. Dean, 45, whose camel team, “Saudi Bronx,” has won trophies across the region and strengthened his attachment to the kingdom, which he first visited in 2006.

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

All of this would have been highly unlikely 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 stepping up 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 were banned from driving, are increasingly living alone, buying apartments and driving to work.

The 38-year-old crown prince is an avowed authoritarian who has combined social openness with a crackdown on dissent, arresting hundreds of Saudi critics across the political spectrum. In January, Manahel al-Otaibi, a fitness instructor who 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, creating a more welcoming image by promoting Saudi culture, art and cuisine, and winning the favor of politicians and tourists alike.

Camel racing, a sport beloved by Bedouins across the Arabian Peninsula, is a small part of that push. The kingdom aims to make it “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 attended the camel race, said: “It’s really nice that foreigners come,” adding: “Just as we get to know their culture, they get to know ours.”

While Mr. Dean was once an exception, American celebrities now regularly show up in Saudi Arabia, often lured by lucrative deals and no longer deterred by the kingdom’s frequent criticism from human rights groups. Many of them end up in AlUla, an area of ​​twisted rock formations and ancient ruins that is the centerpiece of Prince Mohammed’s drive to transform the kingdom into a global tourist destination.

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

“It’s funny to watch,” Mr. Dean said. “Especially going back to people who criticized me and told me not to go, and now they’re asking me what’s the best place to be.”

At the AlUla tournament this spring, camels foamed at the mouth with exertion as they raced down the windswept track, their knees shaking. Instead of jockeys, robots sat on their backs, a change made years ago after the practice of using child jockeys was found to be rife with human rights abuses. A herd of SUVs followed closely behind, filled with trainers who controlled the robots by remote control.

Behind the velvet ropes of the VIP section, Mr. Dean sat next to the head of the racing federation and surrounded by Saudi princes. They applauded him for his victory and reassured him when one of his camels, Enzo, came in fourth, helping Mr. Dean win about $200,000 from the total prize pool of more than $20 million.

Mr. Dean’s Saudi citizenship is a sign that powerful Saudis value his relationship with the kingdom; 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 drawn by endorsements or deals, but Mr. Dean said that wasn’t what drew him there.

“You could easily come to Saudi Arabia and do transactions—there are endless opportunities,” he said. “But I just wanted the freedom to just have fun.”

Born in the Bronx and married to singer Alicia Keys, Mr. Dean has worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye West, among other artists. He once said he was “neighborhood rich.” These days, he’s just plain rich—very rich, in fact, with corporate deals, board memberships, and investments in real estate and contemporary art.

He is Muslim and his grandfather made a 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 didn't 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 some Saudi friends to help him find the best camel trainers and began assembling his team.

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

He now understands how seriously people take the sport, and that some of the Emirati and Qatari sheiks he races with 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 adding the cool factor,” Mr. Dean said.

After the races in AlUla ended, Mrs Keys, his wife, called him and he turned his phone camera to show her a sandstorm brewing outside.

On his way out, he strolled around 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 it.

“It's like I'm a completely new person,” she said.

As darkness fell, he visited a pop-up shop near the track selling his Saudi Bronx-branded merchandise. Among the offerings: an $80 T-shirt featuring hip-hop star Tupac Shakur wearing a Saudi headdress.

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

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

“Hatred in the world would decrease if people traveled more and spent time with different cultures,” he said.

That evening he entered the DJ booth at the roller skating rink he helped found in AlUla.

Disco balls made the lights dance on the dance floor as he played classics by Saudi singers, mixing them with retro hip-hop hits.

Dozens of people watched from the sidelines as skaters twirled around the open-air rink, some skilled and some unsteady, falling to the ground. A man wearing a traditional white robe pulled it up to his knees and trembled outside, grabbing a friend's hand for balance.

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

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