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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Neighbourhood Watch: A rare glimpse of Bedouin life in the humble border town of Qoa

The nomadic lifestyle is in the past for breeders but camels still bring social mobility in this remote desert community

“If the origin is good, the camel will be good,” says Ali Al Darei, 21, a camel breeder from the landlocked desert town of Qoa.

It is an accepted truth that the best camels of the Gulf are Omani. But in the UAE, the next best thing to an Omani camel is one from Qoa.

While nomadic lifestyle has ended for the camel breeders, camels still afford social mobility in this arid town.

Set between imposing dunes and a border wall between the UAE and Oman, the town is perhaps as isolated as it gets in a country that has undergone such rapid urbanisation.

The city of Al Ain is 90 minutes north. Head south and there’s nothing until the palms of the Liwa oasis, a five-hour drive on a restricted access motorway that cuts through the Empty Quarter. A direct road to Abu Dhabi city is under construction.

Heavy rains once filled Qoa aquifers and this made it a destination for herdsmen and their flocks. Fast forward to modern times and residents recall when the government invited them to settle permanently following the unification of the UAE in 1971.

There are two parts to the modern town – upper Qoa, a grid network built on a hill of two-storey mansions and lower Qoa, a collection of corrugated iron cabins placed higgledy-piggledy and painted slate blue.

Each home is a compound of cabins built around tidy, gravel courtyards.

These are the homes of Omani camel breeders, respected at national racetracks in a multimillion-dollar industry.

“We came because we’re all bedu,” says Ali’s mother Eida Al Darei.

“The first time I came; I was about 15 years old. I had just married and I was pregnant.

“It wasn’t like today. In those days, all the houses were like this,” she says, pointing to the corrugated iron houses outside the window.

“We called them boxes.”

Each ‘house’ in lower Qoa is a compound of cabins built around tidy, gravelled courtyards. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Each home is a compound of cabins built around tidy, gravelled courtyards.

Like many others here, Eida, 38, maintains close contacts with her native Oman, and has moved her family’s camels to historical summer grazing areas south of Ibri in Oman’s interior.

Eida’s daughter-in-law, Sheikha Al Darei, keeps her camels a few minutes from the town. Land use is free in Quoa and its deserts are one of the few undeveloped landscape areas of the country.

Heavy rains once filled Qoa aquifers, making it a destination for herdsmen and their flocks. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Heavy rains once filled Qoa aquifers, making it a destination for herdsmen and their flocks. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Sheikha’s camels are well tempered and gregarious beasts, so magnificent and numerous that Sheikha is initially reluctant to give her age. She does not want to attract the envy of others or appear boastful.

“I am 29 years old but you can say I’m 35,” she says.

“Otherwise people might say, how does she have all these camels?”

Camels are kept for milk, which is shared but never sold, and breeding. The cost of a Qoa dromedary ranges from Dh50,000 to Dh500,000 but the most Ali has ever got for one is Dh70,000.

“The value is in the culture, not the profit” Ali says.

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More from the camel race industry:

Qo’a breeder buys three camels for Dh900,000 at Adihex auction

Celebration of beauty, and all things bedouin, at Omani camel festival

Once upon a time in the Western Region: Meet UAE’s racing camel tycoon

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Prizes won at the camel racetrack make for generous bounty and shed light on why Land Cruisers and Range Rovers are parked outside humble homes. They are camel race prizes.

But Ali stresses everyone has a day job. He is an accountant at an agricultural company. Sheikha is an administrator in the local school.

The town is one of several in Al Ain region to undergo a facelift in recent years. According to Arabic newspaper Al Khaleej, the 2016 government regeneration plan included new street lights, roads, a Dh30 million park, a slaughterhouse, and improvements to 450 government houses.

The sons of Eida Al Darei presents guests with Omani halwa from the city of Nizwa. Like many Qoa residents, Eida maintains close contacts with her native Oman. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The sons of Eida Al Darei presents guests with Omani halwa from the city of Nizwa. Like many Qoa residents, Eida maintains close contacts with her native Oman. Chris Whiteoak / The National

With every passing month, there are fewer corrugated iron houses.

The government is relocating homeowners to comfortable, two-story houses at the base of Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain.

But mass shifts do not diminish desert ties, says Mohammed Al Derei , a university student with family in Qoa.

“We will always go back because our family is there and it is hard to leave your family,” says Mohammed, who was raised in Al Ain but spends weekends in Qoa.

“It’s a small village, it’s very quiet and you can feed your animals and your camels and the weather is clear. It’s lovely and it’s not like the city.”

As the last of the UAE’s desert nomads move from simple ‘boxes’ into multi-storey mansions, some traditions remains unchanged.

For visitors who cannot stay for a meal, Eida packs a parcel of dates and a pot of biryani for their journey back to the big city. In this town, hospitality remains a mark of pride and Eida's hospitality guarantees her guests will return, no matter how long the trip.