Race camels fetched prices of up to Dh350,000 at the annual camel auction at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition on Friday night.
The 15 young camels sold for a total of Dh2.07 million.
Hamed Salem, a breeder from the Al Joa area south of Al Ain, bought three camels for Dh900,000.
“We buy according to their genes,” said Mr Salem, 40, an Al Wathba racetrack regular who owns 50 race camels. “It’s expensive but so are the prizes.”
The auction was led by the famed Omani commentator Salem Al Hebsi. In some parts of the world, auctioneers are known for their rapid-fire rhythm but camel auctioneers like Salem Al Hebsi and Saif Al Ketbi use a technique more akin to slow cooking.
Al Hebsi’s cadence was measured and his voice was deep as each calf was paraded back and forth in a sandy arena before VIP attendees, oblivious to the men who have travelled to Abu Dhabi in search of a future star that could bring fortune and fame. Al Hebsi listed the lineage of each camel, extolling the accomplishments of its ancestors while bidders and their children sip Arabic coffee, zaatar tea and karak from the VIP seats above.
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Only when it was clear that no bid was forthcoming would Al Hebsi eventually ring a bell and say, “a thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand congratulations” and announce the name of the winning bidder.
Al Hebsi began commentating in 2008 in Oman’s Al Sharqiyah desert region. After just two years, he was invited to Abu Dhabi’s prestigious Al Wathba racetrack. To this day, Al Hebsi remembers the moment his racetrack career began. “My first commentary was the 28th of November at 5.47am. Of course I remember it,” he said.
This memory has brought him a successful career as auctioneer and commentator. Like any sport, camel race commentary is about statistics and context. During races, a commentator must distinguish camels at a glance and not only know its owner but also its ancestry.
“God bless him, he is renowned for he knows all the lineage of this camel and that camel,” said camel breeder Abdulla Hamdi, flipping through the 2017 auction catalogue. “Omanis are famous trainers. These camels are originally Omani and all race camels are originally Omani. Their size is small and they are light.”
Mr Hamdi would know. He is from the Omani town of Adam, a place renowned for its swift dromedaries and had attended to support his friends.
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Should anyone have missed Al Hebsi’s commentary, there were booklets with a detailed genealogy of each camel that includes a photo of its mother, father and list of their accomplishments.
“Why spend Dh300,000 a camel? Just look at his CV,” said Mr Hamdi, 40, pointing to a page with 13 bullet points about one race camel's victories the number of cars it has won.
Bids started at Dh30,000 for female camels and Dh25,000 for males.
The camels were conceived through artificial insemination at the Advanced Scientific Group in Sweihan. The centre assists breeders with camel fertilization treatments and breeds 1,300 camels each year. It produces an additional 300 of its own camels from the retired racers that live at the centre, like the famous studs Ghazi and Nassi.
Their largest annual auction is at the Al Wathba camel festival. Adihex still holds the record for the most expensive sale of a race camel when Bint Nassi sold for Dh5.8 million to the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, in 2008.
“If there’s a festival that is seven days, a sheikh will come every one of those days,” said Al Hebsi. “If it’s football nobody will come. They care because it’s the country’s heritage.”
Mr Salem is confident that he will make his investment with prize money and resales at races that run from October to April.
“I make Dh50,000 at every festival,” he said. If that seems like a lot, consider this: the final festival of the 2015 race season at Al Wathbah had Dh80million in prize money.
“Maybe he’ll get back one million in return,” said Hamed’s nephew Saeed Al Derei, 28.
Last season, Al Derei’s camels won a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Ford Focus and a Nissan Patrol, in addition to cash prizes. Mr Al Derei sold the Focus and the Patrol but kept the Land Cruiser.
The only drawback to this investment?
“Camels don’t have insurance,” said Mr Al Derei.
If the camel dies, the money is lost.