x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Going, going, gone: Adihex auction showcases future stars of UAE camel racing

The annual camel auction at Adihex is a public event, a chance for city slickers to get a glimpse into a sport that is normally consigned to dusty tracks.

A handler walks among camels at the Advanced Scientific Group Veterinary Research Centre near Sweihan. Christopher Pike / The National
A handler walks among camels at the Advanced Scientific Group Veterinary Research Centre near Sweihan. Christopher Pike / The National

"We have camels in thousands," says Dr Irfan Khan, wrangling his four-wheel drive over the scorching white sand of the Sweihan desert.

Dr Khan has worked as a vet to the world's fastest camels since the 1980s. He has looked after Jabbar, the granddaddy of camel studs, and Tayarra, the camel matriarch whose grace and long limbs earned comparisons to saluki hounds. Over two decades at the Advanced Scientific Group Veterinary Research Centre, he has helped raise three generations of camels.

The third generation of racers will make its debut in Abu Dhabi on Friday night at the annual Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex) camel auction. At 6.30pm, the celebrities of the Gulf's camel racing scene will watch from the VIP section of a chilly arena as timid, one-year-old camels are paraded before them.

The annual camel auction at Adihex is a public event, a chance for city slickers to get a glimpse into a sport that is normally consigned to dusty tracks outside the glimmering metropolitan areas.

If first-time attendees feel that it's hard to spot a winner, they are not alone. Even for Dr Khan, it can be difficult to tell one camel from another.

"To remember hundreds of thousands of camels, it's difficult," says Dr Khan, standing before the calves that will go on auction tonight. "Even to me, all camels look the same. You can't say what makes one special and what doesn't. A winner is a winner."

But these ones, says Dr Khan, are winners.

These are third-generation racers, descendants of the stars. They are worth millions of dirhams even before they have run a single race.

The camels are bred at the Veterinary Research Centre, on a swath of desert between Dubai and Al Ain where the country's best racers live out their retirement.

What makes its calves special is that their parents are not just winners, but dedicated - and successful - breeders.

"Until now, we're successful because there is trust and there is a record and there is a history," says Dr Abdulhaq Anouassi, the centre director. "At our centre, we know the sisters and the fathers of this baby have won, so people are coming for this. We are not in the race; we are in breeding, we are in production."

The centre was the first to organise formal auctions. The aim of the auctions is to improve camel genetics, not to earn a profit - it's historically considered improper to charge a studding fee. Good seed is a gift from God, and something to be shared. The Dh25 million or so that is expected to be raised at the Abu Dhabi auction will be reinvested into the world of camel research - the clinic had the world's first camel test-tube baby in 2005 and treats infertile camels every Tuesday during the breeding season.

Likewise, the auction ensures that anybody can buy the offspring of these camel megastars. The idea is that, in time, this will create generations of increasingly faster and stronger camels across the Gulf.

In the old days, sheikhs gave young camels as gifts. "But since the demand increased year after year, we said: 'Why not organise an auction?'" says Dr Anouassi.

To entice owners to part with their millions, the centre has brought in Saif Omer Al Kitbi as auctioneer. Al Kitbi, a race commentator with 26 years' experience, has an unusual auction style, where he praises camel pedigree and bidder generosity.

The first 40 camels auctioned in 2005 had a reserve price of a meagre Dh5,000. "We had to start somewhere," says Dr Khan. Most sold for Dh100,000 to Dh120,000.

This year's reserve price is Dh25,000 to Dh30,000, a 20 per cent increase from last year. The record auction price for a young camel is Dh6m, but Dh2m is considered a good price.

The 25 camels scheduled for auction tonight are less than a year old and have never been trained. All they have going for them is their bloodline. But it is a worthy investment, says Dr Anouassi. Racetrack victory translates into prizes of cash, cars and golden swords.

"So tell me, which business is giving you a return of 50 per cent in one year?" he asks. "In two years, you can have your money back. No business in the market can give you that."

Buyers return year after year. "That means they are making profits. Otherwise, why will they buy from us?"

The morning of the auction, bidders pay Dh1,000 to register. Some bid by phone from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. "All are famous," says Dr Anouassi. "People who buy for millions, they are famous."

Owners say that it's not about the money. They buy for "namoos", the pride of victory.

The auction is also a fast way to get race-star genes into a herd. Embryo transfers have a waiting list of up to a year. Natural breeding takes time, energy and luck.

"You have many camels who are very famous in the race and they didn't produce well in breeding," says Dr Anouassi. "For mezayana [beauty contests] or milking camels, the heritability is very high. When you have a nice and beautiful lady, you will get a nice and beautiful baby. It's the same for camels."

The Abu Dhabi auction is small compared with the Al Wathba auction that takes place at the season finales in April. Four times as many are auctioned at the spring festival, which is attended by hundreds of the region's fastest camels and their owners.

Tonight's camels come with a certificate of their DNA and an identification number. Owners get to name their new camels; it's chosen with great care, in the knowledge that a good name is worth millions of dirhams later on - with a bit of luck.