ABU DHABI // As Cameron Oliver, a slight 12-year-old from South Africa, climbed onto the stage with his arm stretched towards Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the audience exploded into a deafening applause. It was one of the highlights of the ceremony inside the grand ballroom at the Emirates Palace hotel on Sunday night for the Abu Dhabi Awards, which are handed out every year to honour the kindness and generosity of ordinary - and not so ordinary - people.
This year's eight recipients included a diverse array of individuals, including young Cameron, the youngest person to receive the award so far, doctors and people working to protect animals and the environment. Two of the winners are deceased. Of the record 42,536 nominations received, 9,000 more than last year, judges chose eight individuals who represented the spirit of the awards. Cameron was recognised as the driving force behind a national campaign to raise awareness about the plight of camels that swallow plastic litter discarded in the desert.
His campaign started as a school project when he read an article about the threat to the dromedaries. "That really upset me... I love animals and wanted to help," Cameron said after the ceremony. With the help of his parents and Dr Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, Cameron designed a website, flyers, stickers, T-shirts and caps.
Dr Wernery told him that at his laboratory every third camel brought in for a post mortem examination has ingested plastic and dies from related complications. Cameron even rallied his classmates from Al Raha International School in Abu Dhabi to venture into the desert to help clean up the deadly litter, and continues to raise awareness about the problem through presentations and media interviews.
"I'm very honoured and privileged to receive this award from His Highness," said Cameron. "This award will help me in furthering the campaign, because I want to go into the shopping malls and to schools to talk about this, and put camel cans for recycling all over Abu Dhabi, so people won't litter. "The important thing to remember is that this campaign is not about me; it's about saving the camels."
Dr Margit Muller from Germany, a veterinarian and the director of the capital's Falcon Hospital, is another animal lover who was honoured. She is working to identify and cure diseases that can kill falcons, and to develop emergency medical procedures for the birds of prey. Her work at the Falcon Hospital has made it an internationally renowned centre for these symbols of UAE culture and heritage.
Dr Thabit Mehr and his wife Dr Maleeha Mehr, a Canadian couple who moved to Al Ain in the 1950s and have treated thousands of patients, were honoured for their dedication. The doctors often worked with limited equipment in difficult, arid conditions. They became renowned for making house calls, even to the Bedouin tents in the desert. Rashid al Dhaheri, 74, received an award for teaching hundreds of Al Ain's elderly women how to read and write by giving them classes in Arabic, mathematics and Islamic studies.
Mr al Dhaheri also built the non-profit Istiqama mosque and centre, and trained women to teach one another to read. Fahad Jaber, a graphic designer living in Abu Dhabi, was honoured for his work in making mobile phones accessible to the deaf and hearing-impaired, many of whom are unable to read and write because of their disability. Mr Jaber developed a simple text-messaging program that can convert SMS texts into sign language.
Dr Amal al Qubaisi, an architect who is also a member of the Federal National Council, was recognised for her work in preserving the architectural heritage of the UAE. Working with the Unesco, Dr al Qubaisi has documented more than 350 historical sites, ensuring the locations are protected by national and international law. Two posthumous awards were also presented to Darwish bin Karam and Sir Wilfred Thesiger.
Bin Karam, who died in 1985, spent his childhood as a pearl diver until he attended school in Dubai at the age of 12 and discovered a passion for education. He began teaching at the age of 13 and went on to build the first brick school in Abu Dhabi - the Al Ahlia School, fondly known as The Darwish - which educated those from low-income families in Arabic, English, mathematics and Islamic studies.
Bin Karam spent his life providing and promoting the benefits of education, particularly to those who would have had little access otherwise. Sir Wilfred, a British explorer who died in 2003, was known as Mubarak bin Landan, or Mubarak of London, among the people of Abu Dhabi and the Bedouins with whom he lived for years. Sir Wilfred took 35,000 photos of Abu Dhabi and its people, and his writings provided a unique account of the history of the capital, as well as the lives of Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the UAE, the sheikhs and tribes of Abu Dhabi, and the Bedouins.
His biographer, Alexander Maitland, accepted the award on his behalf. "We are very happy with the wide range of winners this year, whether they came from different backgrounds or different ages," said Maryam Amiri, a member of the organising committee. "Many were taken aback by our young recipient Cameron Oliver, what with him being so young, but this is what the award is about. "We take into consideration every individual within their own capacity and how much they can give back to their community, so for a 12-year-old to do something of this magnitude is what we consider a unique, selfless act.
"We do not have categories at the Abu Dhabi Awards for this reason: we want to give the opportunity to everyone from all backgrounds and in all areas of achievement the chance to be recognised, with no limits, and without placing our winners in boxes. "Our winners inspire people to work towards giving back to the community." Sheikh Mohammed personally congratulated all the winners. In attendance were other members of the Royal Family, as well as members of the Executive Council, dignitaries, business leaders and the winners' families.