In some places, roughing it means packing up a few sleeping bags and a waterproof tent. Camping gear is designed to be light, small and easy to carry.
In the Arabian Gulf, you go big or go home. Roughing it means packing up your salukis, falcons and a truckload or two of gold-coloured furniture and heading off to the dunes in the hopes of catching some rain.
Tea cups are packed by the dozen. There are no plastic plates, flimsy bamboo mats or tiny torches. Instead, strings of fairy lights are attached to generators, goat kabsa is served on shiny platters and dozens of Persian carpets are laid across the floor of the tent, which is of course a shoe-free zone.
A growing number of product developers have joined the business of outfitting extravagant Gulf camping equipment.
As the winter season approaches, these businesses expect to cash in on an activity where a season’s gear can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dirhams.
It is an industry that revolves, first and foremost, around the need to impress and welcome guests.
“Year after year new ideas are coming,” says Bader Saab, 26, the Emirati founder of a Bader Al Emarat, an outfitter that designs UAE-made goods.
“I mean, in the Gulf everybody loves the guests and welcomes the guests. This is love, generosity.”
The attraction of the desert is an old one, but there is nothing old fashioned about today’s campsites. The hobby is a connection to the past, but not bound by it.
Businesses are constantly developing new ways to market the old value of hospitality through new styles and creations. There is, admits Mr Saab, an element of competition between camps. Campsites are made to receive guests and should impress with their beauty and generosity, he says.
“Everybody needs their place to be very beautiful. It’s not only about the tent, it’s about everything, all of the equipment.”
Bedu camping once centred on the camel, but modern camping is all about the 4x4.
Not only do vehicles allow people to travel with a pack of dogs, but they make it possible to transport elaborate furniture sets as well. These usually include a matching three-burner gas stove, a stand to hold and display dallah coffee pots, a mandoos chest for storage and metre-tall frankincense holders for the well-scented tent.
Modern innovations seek to reconcile the past and the future with elegance. This is not always easily done when you spend days dune-bashing with your falcons and, at times, need a supply of live pigeons to feed them.
This year’s must-have camping accessory is a canvas arm rest cover that lets drivers keep their majestic falcons at hand at all times without damaging the car. Another popular item for next year is the sand-perch: a sand-filled canvas pouch that allows the owner to place his or her falcon safely on any surface.
Last year an Al Ain innovator, Khaled Al Muhairi, introduced a tyre cover with soft, perforated boxes for pigeons used in falconry.
Like many outfitters, Mr Al Muhairi initially sold many falconry accessories – a long-established business – and later moved on to camping equipment at his outfitters store, World of Hunting and Trips.
People have never stopped camping, he says, and desert trips can last for three days to three months or more. The business has never been so good.
Coffee sets are always top sellers.
The “minimum” and most essential camping item is a small case that contains everything needed for tea.
In other countries, this would mean hot water and teabags. Not in the Gulf. The kit includes jars for tea, coffee beans, cardamom pods, saffron, sugar, a flame shield, a gas burner, tongs, a lighter, thimble-shaped ceramic cups for coffee, small glass cups for tea, a bundle of palm frond fibres to strain cardamom husks, pot holders, a metal tea strainer, a teapot, a coffee pot and four tiny teaspoons.
Everything is well-fastened, with the expectation that it will survive the jostling that comes from flying over and into sand dunes.
There is an expectation that campers will meet strangers or friends in the desert. Wherever they are, whoever they meet is expected to visit the tent and share a drink. The hospitality is a way for people to forge or rekindle connections between tribes and across borders.
“Maybe in Canada or the United States, if you don’t see a friend for a long time you take him to dinner or to lunch,” says Mr Al Muhairi. “Here if he drinks coffee and eats some dates it’s like a party.”
Mr Al Muhairi started his shop two years ago, and his equipment is made in the Gulf and China. “In the Gulf it’s very good business, especially in winter,” he says. “I do this work because I love hunting. It’s not only for business.”
When Mr Al Muhairi camps, he spends a lot on gear but saves on food. On camping trips to Saudi Arabia, his salukis and friends’ falcons are expected to earn their keep.
If no meat is caught, the men will dine only on crisps and Kit Kats.
“We take only rice, salt and spices,” says Mr Al Muhairi. “We are not happy when we don’t catch anything. If we don’t catch anything everyone will sleep hungry.”
Of course, the inventors have a kit for cooking too.
The award-winning King Ezba kit created by a Kuwaiti camping-gear developer, Shibbi Al Ajmi, includes everything you need for a meal of tea, coffee and goat kebsa: frying pans, serving platters of various sizes, ladles, knives, a can opener, gas cookers, cooking pots, a grill, cutting boards, a date-serving dish, oven mitts, a fold-out table and all of the tea paraphernalia found in the basic coffee kit. Coffee and tea pots come in extra-large sizes.
It all fits in one handy box. All you need is the goat.
Coffee aficionados will invest in a quality Bedu coffee bean roaster with an 80-cm handle. It looks like a giant spoon and comes with a long metal stick for stirring the beans while they are held over the fire. This usually costs Dh200.
“You know, the Arabian people are addicted to the smell of coffee,” says Mr Al Ajmi’s nephew, Khaled.
The most basic tea sets do not just include polka dot thimbles, teapot, glasses, saucers and a sugar cup, but also a box that holds hot coals. Electric version are sold for household majlises.
“You will be the greatest man to invite everyone to your place,” says Mr Al Ajmi, who is 27. “You see, here we don’t make only one cup or two cups. Everyone is coming. That’s why we like coffee, we like tea. It’s our style.”
Good hospitality is not just about the practical, it’s about the aesthetic.
Vintage is in vogue. There are the ubiquitous black and red patterns on textiles. Polka dots are an absolute must for teacups, and gold coloured ornamentation is fashionable for furniture.
“Everyone likes gold,” says Mr Al Ajmi. “Everyone likes the look of luxury. We don’t see it as gold, we see it as a symbol. We see it as something well made that will last several years.”
Inventors pride themselves on the durability of their products, but it means sales are usually one-off. Outfitters must draw customers back with new products every year.
The gear is identical at most outfitters, but each claims to be his own innovator using ideas sharpened from their own experience.
“I am sure of one thing, my uncle brings the design and then it spreads everywhere,” says Mr Al Ajmi. “You know, the design is simple. You can just see it and know how to make it.”
Items at his uncle’s shop, Kashtaa, are inspired by camping trips in Algeria, Tunis, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iraq. “He insists on going to Iraq because he likes to be charmed by the nature there,” says Mr Al Ajmi. “He goes hunting every year, and it’s like he has seen the secret land of paradise.
“Everyone seeks peace and silence away from the crowd.”
His uncle’s dedication is not without its drawbacks.
“Business is good but you must pay attention to it,” says Mr Al Ajmi. “When you have a manager who likes to go hunting – it’s difficult to handle when the manager’s not coming.”