If you are in the UAE right now, congratulations. You are here for the best time of the year. The seventh annual Al Dhafra Festival starts this Saturday in Madinat Zayed. If you are in search of the elusive 'authentic Arabian experience' that doesn't involve a Lebanese buffet at a desert safari, this is your chance. It's free, it's awesome and it's on for two weeks until Dec 28. Get out there. Once you arrive, here's what you can expect: a city of tents in the desert, 25,000 beauty camels and fans who followed them across the Arabian Peninsula, millionaire camel owners, teenage boys singing love songs about beautiful humps, poetry dedicate to camels written across windscreens and bling. Lots and lots of camel bling. This is no a quaint, old-fashioned heritage festival. This is a two week party where millions of dollars will be made and lost, where desert legends will be born. The action takes place in the dunes just south of the Western Region city of Madinat Zayed, about two and a half hours from downtown Abu Dhabi. Here is part one of my guide to camel beauty and how to get the most out of the festival.
How can a camel be beautiful?
This being the UAE, size is everything. Bigger camels get more points but its the ratio of the features that’s most important. A beautiful camel has a long, thin neck, large feet and strong, sturdy legs. Its hump should be on its lower back. Pert ears, long eyelashes and thick droopy lips score major points with judges. A panel of judges grade camels according to a strict criteria with a set amount of points per feature. All decisions are unanimous. There are points for temperament because, you know, true beauty comes from within and all that.
Why is a camel worth millions?
Supply and demand. Camels are popular for the same reason people love Ferrari sport cars or Jimmy Choo shoes. They’re beautiful, they’re timeless and they’re a status symbol. Beauty camels are arguably more functional because they win cars and cash prizes at state-sponsored competitions.
So do owners make money?
Not always. Camels are not cash cows. They cannot be insured and there’s no guarantee that a camel will grow into a beauty queen. That said there is Dh50 million in prize money or sell it for a profit. There is no betting, which is forbidden by Islam.
How are camels decorated?
In the UAE, bling is king and camels are no exception. Race camels usually wear bridles in their owners’ colours made by Omani crafts women but beauty camels are decked in gold coloured beads, tinsel, national flags, and necklaces like those worn by Emirati brides. Winning camels have their necks covered in saffron.
What else is going on?
Falconry hunting, saluki races, camel races, an Arabian horse competition, a dates packaging competition and a handcrafts market. Oh, and tea drinking. A whole lot of tea drinking. Everything interesting tends to happen over coffee and tea so be sure not to decline any invitations.
How to approach a camel? With respect. Some bite but generally people will warn you if they see you approaching a cranky camel. Many are rather social and they like to sniff new friends. Like a puppy.
Hey, aren't Arabian camels possible hosts for the Mers Coronavirus? Why, yes they are. Most of the people I've spoken to don't seem too concerned about this. But head's up, you've been warned. I've promised my mother I will do my best not to snuggle any camels. (Inshallah, Mom. Inshallah.)
For more information, check out www.aldhafrafestival.ae . They have an interactive map to get you there.
If you have further questions, feel free to drop a note below or send me an email or tweet @al_wabr
Coming up: Part 2 of the Idiot’s Guide to Beauty Camels and what to do, bring, wear and see at Al Dhafra.