DUBAI // The Middle East continues to overindulge in a predominantly carnivorous diet - but the UAE is pointing its residents to a new veggie direction.
The Arab diet has always been heavily based on meat - a predicament for the minority of vegetarians living here.
But Meveg, vegetarian support group in Dubai, hopes to guide residents away from their meaty diets with a contest to find the most original way of promoting a vegetarian lifestyle.
They are asking people to submit slogans, posters, flyers, cartoons, essays, videos, poems, songs and music, in English, that emphasise the benefits of vegetarianism.
"It's an exciting way of raising awareness and a first for the UAE," said Sandhya Prakash, the organisation's founder.
"People in the UAE must know that they have a choice and it's time for them to make it."
The deadline for submission is Saturday and winners will be announced on October 1 - World Vegetarian Day.
They will receive prizes and their contributions might also be used worldwide for the International Vegetarian Week 2012.
After living in the Middle East for 17 years, Ms Prakash, a vegetarian since birth, is familiar with the food habits of Arabs.
"Something has to happen to you to change your mind, yet nobody is spreading the awareness. So it's high time we do it," she said. There are many hurdles. Sora Hana, a 22-year-old Saudi student, has been a vegetarian for six months and most of her acquaintances in Saudi Arabia believe she is "sick".
"They find it strange because it's not popular here, especially among older people," she said. "It's really hard to be a vegetarian in such a society."
Ms Hana spends most of her family gatherings feeling alienated because of her eating habits.
"It makes me sad not be to able to share that with them," she said.
She cannot seek refuge in restaurants either as there are barely any vegetarian choices as main dishes.
"Besides falafel sandwiches or salads, you can only get vegan milk sweets or crackers from some Arabic brands," said Ms Hana.
She is one of "many" vegetarians in the Middle East who have eliminated meat from their diet - and the number is rising.
"There is now an interest and a definite curiosity thanks to the internet," said Ms Prakash. "Vegetarianism happens everywhere else except in the Middle East, so we need to let people know about it."
Suresh Bhura, a 38-year-old Indian, said he found the UAE a tough place to survive as a vegetarian - but he claimed it has improved greatly in recent years.
"There are a lot of expatriates and, because of that, there are a lot of options available to buy vegetables in Karamah, Bur Dubai or JBR," he said.
Jillian Schedneck, a 31-year-old American writer, finds it "a bit difficult here" to be vegetarian.
"I don't think this lifestyle works for everyone but everyone could benefit from less meat and more vegetables," she said. Anastasia Mankhaeva, a 27-year-old Russian, said vegetarianism "should be a constant presence".
"It does get a little bit frustrating to go into a restaurant and not see many vegetarian choices on the menu," she said. Ms Prakash said she was acquainted with a mere 20 Arab vegetarians in the UAE, of whom only four were Emirati.
"There are more people out there but they need to come forward," she said. The UAE has about 70 vegetarian restaurants. Now Ms Prakash's aim is to make people more aware of what they offer.
"We'd like the UAE to wake up because we have so much obesity, diabetes and hypertension, it's obscene," she said.
"But it's not too late if you increase the amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains - it goes a huge way."
Maryam Al Qassimi, a 24-year-old Emirati in Sharjah, said Emiratis were now more "aware of the nutritional benefits of vegetarianism" than they were 30 years ago.
She claimed she felt "a massive difference" when she cut back on eating meat to just once a week.
"With food-related health risks like heart disease and high cholesterol on the rise, especially among Arabs, people are starting to slowly realise vegetarianism can actually do more good to their lifestyle than they may think," added Ms Al Qassimi.
Meveg is now working on getting all the vegetarian restaurants in the UAE certified by 2012.
"It's time we opened our eyes, looked around and got curious," said Ms Prakash.
"We have 200 nationalities here, we can get so creative with food using spices and start cooking at home."
Participants can submit entries to the contest at www.vegetarianweek.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org