MADINAT ZAYED // Standing tall and mighty, and always a few steps from the herd, this black beauty does not respond to calls or gestures, until one tiny hand touches her neck and calls her name. "Hakima!" says three-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Diab Al Nahyan as he looks up at the camel. When she hears his voice, she bends down to plant a wet kiss on the child's cheek.
Sheikh Mohammed was being carried by his father, Sheikh Diab bin Saif Al Nahyan, who is Hakima's caretaker. "She lives up to her name," said Sheikh Diab. Hakima means "Ruler" in Arabic. The 2.5 metre-tall five-year-old Saudi camel won first place in her group at the beauty contest last month at the Al Dhafra Camel Festival. It was not her first title. Hakima's attributes a flawless coat and curly hair; a thick body and neck; even partings between her toes; curly eyelashes and a well-shaped nose; and thick, full lips earned her a perfect score of 100, and earned a Nissan Station for Sheikh Diab.
"It is one of the few beauty contests out there where bigger is better, and where natural beauty wins the crown," said the sheikh. "Hakima has all the right proportions and the character that comes with being the perfect beauty," he said, pointing to her features with a walking stick. He uses the stick to lead the camels while they exercise. Now worth millions, Hakima cost him about Dh600,000 (US$163,000) when he bought her as a newborn in Saudi Arabia.
But Hakima was not the only winner in the sheikh's herd. It also earned a first and second place in the individual contest, and a group of six placed third in the group contest. Each of the winners wears hand-designed necklaces of silver and crystals, made by the family. The biggest one is around Hakima's neck. The camels also wear jewellery and decorations made of tassels and silver embroidery around their humps.
Sheikh Diab is one of the top camel breeders and caretakers in the emirate. In his 20 years in the field, he has learnt a few things that he insists must remain a secret. He mentioned, however, that some of the grooming rituals involve special oils and shampoos, and the camels are pampered with imported hay and well-ventilated quarters. "A bit of sesame and coconut oil in their food helps give their coat that lustre and shine, and regular brisk walks after their baths also helps keep them fit," said Sheikh Diab.
The regime for racing camels is much stricter, with longer walks and runs and far less primping and grooming. The racers tend to be thinner and lighter in colour, and more varied in size. The beauties are dedicated to Sheikh Diab's daughter, Sheikha Sheikha, and the racers to his son, Sheikh Mohammed. Sheikh Diab owns more than 600 camels. They live in the UAE and on Saudi farms. The beauties will return to central Saudi, where the climate is best for their coat.
One afternoon, 12 of the sheikh's black beauties were going for a 4km stroll on his farm. One of the winners, four-year-old Jahada, was particularly cheerful that day as her "adopted" child, a two-year-old brown racing camel, was let loose to run with the herd. Nicknamed "Al Shaqi" (mischievous), the small camel would start to run, prompting the heavier and larger beauty camels to quicken their pace and follow it. The caretakers had a hard time keeping up.
"The little one is giving them a good workout," said Sheikh Diab, laughing. He followed the action in his 4x4. Camels, popular in the Gulf for sporting and trading purposes, can live up to 35 years. A good one can cost up to Dh10 million, and Dh2,000 monthly for care. The sheikh recently opened a private camel breeding laboratory, hoping to capture the beauty of his current winners, and pass it to future generations. "It is getting more difficult to find these kinds of beautiful camels, so when you see one, you can't help but stand back in awe and admiration," he said.
The camels become part of the family. They receive visitors, young and old, who pet, feed and ride them. When Sheikh Mohammed was bidding the camels farewell, his father asked: "So what does your father like to do with camels?" Using his hands, Sheikh Mohammed blew kisses to the camels, saying goodbye as the sun set in time for their beauty sleep. email@example.com