x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Umm Khalid, the camel bling queen at UAE's Al Dhafra Festival

Saudi woman has helped to transform camel fashion from woven adornments to golden plastic jewels, coins, tassels and tinsels.

Umm Khalid, from Saudi Arabia, is considered the queen of camel bling and has been making it for a decade producing pieces like the one she is holding, which is called a Jeneeba - a camel body decoration. Jeff Topping / The National
Umm Khalid, from Saudi Arabia, is considered the queen of camel bling and has been making it for a decade producing pieces like the one she is holding, which is called a Jeneeba - a camel body decoration. Jeff Topping / The National

ABU DHABI // In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Umm Khalid is the queen of camel bling.

This week, she is working from the Al Dhafra Festival in central Abu Dhabi to secure her fame across the Arabian Gulf.

There are 25,000 beauty camels at the Al Dhafra camel beauty competition and looks alone are not enough to stand out.

To make their camels shine, owners enlist the help of Umm Khalid, a Saudi divorcee who has travelled the camel circuit for nearly 10 years selling camel tack.

The weaver's daughter, 35, lives in a world of glimmer.

Even at 9am, her eyes are covered in kohl eyeliner, her lashes coated in mascara and she wears a velvet gown of deep purple with golden cuffs.

Her caravan's walls, floors and ceiling are upholstered in red cloth with a sword and palm motif, emblems of her native Saudi Arabia. Beads and tassels dangle from the ceiling of a small room where Umm Khalid receives camel VIPs. They talk strategy in the sanctuary of Umm Khalid's caravan.

"This is a centre for the VIP professionals," says Fahd bin Mohammed, 30, a camel owner from Riyadh. "Every year they need a new style. Just like a car."

In another room, two Bangladeshi freelancers, an Egyptian man and an Indonesia woman turn tinsel into tassels and sew sequins.

The floors are covered with strings of fake gold beads, bags of plastic rubies and emeralds, gold tinsel threads and plastic coins with a figure that bear a strong resemblance to a young Queen Elizabeth of Britain.

"It's all from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," says Umm Khalid. "Saudis are the best because they were the first to do this."

A piece of Umm Khalid's camel jewellery costs up to Dh3,000. Most pieces are necklaces or hatat, decorative belts that circle the camel's hump, body and back.

In 2009, Umm Khalid set the standard for the golden beaded and tasselled hatat worn by black beauty camels. Previously, nobody dared to use gold.

"At first, people said it would not work," says Rajab Shaban, an Egyptian who works full time with Umm Khalid in winter. "Then they saw it. Now everyone buys."

Plastic camel tack was popularised with the advent of large, government-sponsored beauty contests in the last decade. Generations of women have followed the camel track to sell camel accessories since the popularisation of racing in the 1970s.

Most traders are widows or divorcees and are their family's sole breadwinners. Their young children may travel with them or live with extended families. They live in tents beside race tracks at beauty competitions for weeks at a time.

Umm Khalid is famous, but she is often away from her eight-year-old son Khalid. She supports her mother and son.

The advent of beauty competitions has given a boost to these family businesses, but it has become more profitable for women to sell ropes of fake plastic jewels instead of making the traditional woven adornments.

In the so-called traditional souq, there is little demand for the old craft. Hand-woven goods are expensive. Profits are low.

Omani women sell traditional woven wares at the other side of the Al Dhafra market.

There, an Emirati camel owner pulls up to the tent of a weaver.

"Do you have crystals?" asks Salem Al Mansoori, 30. He is holding a belt of plastic coins. It is a replica of a belly dancer belt, sized for a camel.

Ghariba Mohammed has sheepskin rugs and handmade blankets, camel bags and harnesses that represent months of work. But she has no plastic jewels and no sale.

In recent weeks, she has added plastic neck pieces to her collection. They sell for Dh20. Her handmade neck pieces sell for Dh100. Woven pieces will last for decades but owners want glitter. They do not want to invest in pricey accessories when fashion will change. "I mean, I must make it. I must," said Ms Mohammed, when asked about the plastic tack. "I wish to buy my clothes, to drink my water, to feed my camels. My work, it's my everything."

She has woven since age 14. She does not know another trade.

The Omani trader Maha Salem skipped tradition entirely. She started by selling ready-made tinsel tack instead of the traditional crafts that Omani women are famous for.

Men and government equate camels with heritage, but the new style is better business.

"This is now," says Maha, who is 30 . "Most people are all talk, no business. This sells."

azacharias@thenational.ae