Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
The must-have accessory for a teenager in Madinat Zayed this season is not the latest smartphone or a new car. Rather, it is a decal of a beautiful camel, plastered across their windscreens and surrounded by lines of poetry.
For the youth of Abu Dhabi’s Western Region, nothing is cooler than camel.
Camel beauty contests were once the preserve of old men who could afford to spend millions of dirhams diversifying their herd. Now the grandstands are filled with young men, as more and more buy in to the sport.
There is no morning lie-in for the teenagers of Al Gharbia. They rise at dawn to parade their camels in the judging pens at beauty pageants such as Al Dhafra Festival, which is taking place now.
They are the first to arrive and the last to leave, sitting in the stands until sunset, when the air smells of saffron and ghutras fly overhead as the winner is declared.
They wait for hours, each certain in their belief that his camel will be the next big thing.
Imagine a teenager with the wealth to collect cars. Now imagine that those cars are worth millions and have no insurance. This gives an idea of the risks and costs of camel trading.
To reduce these costs, young men buy younger, more affordable camels and sell them to sheikhs when they mature at four or five years old. But even the most promising calves can grow less attractive.
“Last year I bought a baby camel from here for Dh100,000. Now he’s worth Dh10,000,” says Salem Muharami, 24, from Taiba, a community 40 kilometres south of Abu Dhabi. “Maybe he’s worth under Dh10,000. His face is not beautiful now. When I took him from here, he was very beautiful.”
But Mr Muharami has not given up. He continues to attend beauty contests, binoculars in hand, in the hopes that he will find his ugly duckling.
Most youths make their first million by selling camels from the family herd and reinvesting in new stock. Alternatively, young men buy with their father’s money, a quick and easy way to build wealth in their late teens and early twenties.
“You have two kinds of people: rich men who want to buy camels and young men who want camels to sell camels as a kind of business,” says Hamed Al Mazrouei, 30, a spectator from Al Gharbia. “Young people, they sell. The richest men buy.”
Festival organisers cite heritage as the main reason for the trend, but state-sponsored beauty pageants are a recent, invented tradition. Even so, the new sport reinforces old social practices.
Breeding and care foster a connection with the past and national identity, while competitions such as Al Dhafra, which attract competitors from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, build transnational Arabian Gulf identity.
“Here the idea is to catch the traditional life, like how to help poor people and how to serve guests,” says Mr Al Mazrouei. “If the Government gives prize money it supports these traditions.
“People from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar all come to one area, and this makes good relations between countries.”
The heritage sport is touted as “bedu” but it is made possible by low-cost migrant labour.
Handlers from Sudan and Bangladesh live on farms and care for camels while the owners are at work or school in the cities.
On weekends and holidays, young camel owners learn to set up tents, host guests, recite poetry and tell tales by the camp fire. It is viewed as a solution to the temptations that boredom brings to small towns, such as drinking or drag racing.
When asked to name their heroes, youths at Al Dhafra festival do not name footballers or movie stars. They name famous herdsmen such as Rames Saleh, a grizzled bedu of 61 years who travels between Gulf borders to graze his milking camels.
“Another thing, these people they don’t like football, they don’t like to travel abroad and so this is the only thing they have,” says Mr Al Mazrouei, who is from the small desert community of Liwa. “The bad thing is people don’t have money. They take loans to buy.”
“You know how much a camel eats in a year?” asks his 30-year-old friend, Ahmed Al Mansoori, a breeder also from Liwa.
“I have 40 camels and they eat five or six thousand dirhams a month. I have only my own salary to pay for this.”
A few minutes earlier, Mr Al Mansoori had been offered Dh200,000 for one of his camels. He declined.
“She’s not ready,” he said of the animal. “Next year she will be beautiful. Next year she will win two cars, inshallah.”
But it’s not only about the money.
“When you like the camel, it brings riches in your heart and you can’t sell her,” says Mr Al Mansoori.
Young people say that as long as there are rich sheikhs to buy their camels, the ventures are almost risk-free. Each has his own strategy.
“The desert teaches me how to control myself and my money,” says Musallim Saleh, 24, a competitor from Baniyas who competed on Sunday.
He owns 37 camels, 10 of which he bought after months of meticulous research on their pedigrees. He has no regular salary.
“I make a lot from camels and other businesses and real estate,” he says.
Mr Saleh buys famous studs to breed with cows descended from his grandfather’s camels. He sets a maximum limit of Dh250,000 for a camel and often doubles his investments within a year.
But no purchase is foolproof. Once, he bought a pregnant camel in the belief that its father was a champion beauty. When the calf was born, Mr Saleh had his doubts.
“His face was not ugly but not a famous face, not beautiful face,” he says. To this day, Mr Saleh refuses to name the three-year-old camel, which he still hopes to resell.
Others rely on impulse and instinct when they buy.
“If I see a beautiful camel, I can’t control myself. I’m very excited,” said Mabkhoor Al Marri, 23, a chemical engineering student from Qatar.
He has one simple rule. He buys only what he can afford. The sport, he says, is for young people who are not burdened with responsibilities. Many of the young men at Al Dhafra are here to represent fathers and grandfathers who are too busy to travel abroad for the festival.
“If you are over 25, you have a family, you have other jobs, but if you are young you have time to look for good camels,” he said. “Some people, young boys, have a lot of money. I know somebody, he’s 20 years old and he has a lot of camels. His cheapest is Dh5 million. He’s a rich man, you know?”
Dozens of his relatives are attending Al Dhafra from Qatar. Most of them are under 40.
“At first people didn’t pay attention to camels, they looked at businesses or property,” he says. “But now all the people are like kings: they look at camels and their value has become very expensive.”
And for every disappointment, there is a story of hope.
Just look at what happened to the camel Gaouda, says Mr Muharami.
For the first two years of her life Gaouda was so ugly her owner was told not to even bother entering her in a beauty contest.
“The judge said, ‘Take her out’,” says Mr Muharami. Then, in her third year, Gaouda won the top prize. “Her owner sold her for Dh9 million. Nine million.”
It only takes one win to break even, he says. Just one.