The Al Dhafra Camel Festival offers more than its Dh40 million in prizes. It unites Arabs across the Gulf region.
For the love of camels
MADINAT ZAYED, AL GHARBIA // Salem al Dohani knows all about camel beauty contests. A camel farm owner, he hosts his own competition every February in his hometown of Musana'ah in northern Oman. This year he arrived at the Al Dhafra Camel Festival in Abu Dhabi proudly displaying five of his best dromedaries. "The relationship between camels and humans is one of pure love," he says, gesturing to his beasts, which he has festooned with the red and white Omani flag. "They are very peaceful animals and when you raise them you become emotionally attached. It is important to hold competitions like this to appreciate all the qualities God granted to the camel and to also to show others how important they are." Although the number of entrants into Mr Dohani's contest pale in comparison to the 24,000 camels in the Abu Dhabi festival, competitors still come from Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to enter his private competition. Like the UAE event, which is the largest camel festival in the world, Mr Dohani hosts auctions, poetry contests and, of course, a beauty competition. He hopes his camels will take home some of the Dh40 million (US$10.8m) worth of prizes in the Abu Dhabi contest, or Mazayina as it is also being called. But, like many of the owners, he is also here to sell. "There are so many people here interested in buying that we can get good prices," he says. "However, the Abu Dhabi festival is still new and I think the auctions could be better organised. The camels should be classed in terms of size, age and breeding quality so that everyone could see clearly what his neighbour has to sell. Then I think more people would come and the prices would be even higher." Certainly profit draws many to the event. The aptly named Million Street, the main thoroughfare through the site, is where millions of dirhams in cash or cheques exchange hands each day in private sales. Naser Ali al Merri, from Jubayl on Saudi Arabia's east coast, made Dh8m at last year's festival from selling just four camels. This year Mr al Merri brought only one female but he is confident the trip will be worth it. "I drove for 24 hours from my hometown to get to this festival," he says. "But if I get the same prices as last year that's good for me." It is important for his reputation as a camel breeder to travel, Mr al Merri adds. "When I sell or buy my camels in other countries I can then breed them with the ones I have at home and their lineage will be improved. Also when I return to Saudi, people will respect me for having travelled and made sales abroad." Faraj and Marzooq al Gaithani, 27 and 29, are brothers from Saudi Arabia's eastern deserts. Even in their small village they heard about the good prices at the Abu Dhabi festival and travelled here last week. They hope to sell their six Asayel or light-coloured camels for at least Dh150,000 each, but also dream that one of their animals will catch the eye of a sheikh. "We have heard stories of sheikhs buying camels for up to Dh25m if they like the breed or if it wins a round of the competition," says the elder Mr al Gaithani. "And sometimes if they meet the owners, they offer support for the tribe. We hope something good like that will happen to us. If not it is still a very nice place and we are having a good time." Away from the traffic of Million Street and the pungent, saliva-strewn paddocks of the camels, comes the more fragrant aromas of the traditional souq. The area houses 150 stalls located by a handful of windtowers. The stalls, reserved for UAE citizens, sell products such as home-made perfume, honey, henna, spices, clothes and baskets woven from palm fronds. Women chat in makeshift kitchens as they cook luqaimat, or sweet doughnut balls, and pack semi-dried dates with local herbs to preserve their flavour. Alongside the souq, several shops have been erected by women from around the Gulf. "I have had many customers," says one woman who arrived with her family armed with decorations for the animals covered in silver and gold beads. "Maybe 20 each day. There are so many camels here there are enough people for many people to benefit from setting up a stall for their owners' needs." Um Abdullah, from Saudi Arabia, came to the festival with her husband and three sons to sell handmade children's clothes, perfume from natural oils and satin green flags from her home country. "I don't normally get the chance to sell my products," she says. "I come from a very conservative family and it is seen as improper for a woman to leave the home at all. But I am creative so when I knew we were coming to this festival, I started making things. "I am very happy to be here, it is my dream one day to own a stall of my own. Maybe when my children are older I will be able to ask them to help me." There are very few women at the camel festival. Instead the thousands of male visitors congregate in the central arena where the rounds of the beauty contests take place. Every time a winner is announced the crowds erupt into celebrations. Men from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman dance together, national and tribal rivalries set aside. "The animals unite us," says Obaid al Mazrouei, one of the festival's organisers. "Every day of the festival is a huge celebration whether people win or lose. It is about retaining our traditions and passing them forward to the next generations." Diana Harris, an Australian teacher living in Abu Dhabi who brought her two children, says: "It's a fantastic festival and well-organised but personally I can't see how camels are winning beauty contests. "They have pretty eyes but otherwise they are quite noisy and smelly. However, I suppose if it is about remembering the importance of the animal then it is a good way to do so." Mr Dohani agrees that is why the festival is important. "Camels give us transport, meat, milk and above all companionship ... They are truly amazing creatures and well deserving of their beauty prizes." firstname.lastname@example.org