World Camel Day: Inside the Saudi vet hospital the size of Buckingham Palace

Al Salam Veterinary Hospital’s main business will be breeding a new generation of humped superstars

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A version of this article was first published in September 2020

Saudi Arabia is already known as a destination for camel beauty pageants. Now, it wants to be known for camel healthcare, too.

The country opened the world's largest camel hospital in July 2020 and photographs show what daily life is like inside.

At 70,000 square metres, Al Salam Veterinary Hospital is about the size of Buckingham Palace and a little smaller than the island of Alcatraz.

The centre cost more than Dh134 million but camel racing and pageantry are sports for princes and sheikhs in which a single camel can fetch Dh10 million at the height of pageantry season.

The hospital lies in the interior Qassim region between Madinah and Riyadh, at the site of one of the world’s largest camel markets, and will serve camel owners in Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia.

Inside world's largest camel hospital in Saudi Arabia

Inside world's largest camel hospital in Saudi Arabia

The nearest comparable clinics are about 1,000 kilometres away in other Gulf states. Travelling hundreds of kilometres and crossing borders is part of the racing and pageantry lifestyle but the coronavirus pandemic has made this impossible, even as local competitions continue.

Al Salam Veterinary Hospital can treat 144 camels, has stables for 400 racing camels and will employ up to 300 staff ready to meet a camel’s every need, from surgery to accommodation and blood testing.

Camels can be treated for infectious disease, injuries and chronic illness at the hospital, but its main business will be fertilisation.

The hospital has already conducted more than 500 embryo transfers, resulting in 350 successful pregnancies.

Vets plan to transfer 2,500 embryos next season, an ambitious amount by camel-breeding standards.

Embryo transfer has led to some of the biggest names in the world of camel racing.

A camel pregnancy lasts two years, which previously meant female racers could produce a few offspring only after retiring from the racetrack.

The advancement of camel surrogacy has meant prized female racers can now pass winning genes on to dozens of calves in one year.

This has transformed the world of racing and made some she-camels as renowned as studs.

Al Samha, from Abu Dhabi, is one such cow known for her prolific progeny.

The best-known breeding centres, such as the Advanced Scientific Group in Abu Dhabi, attract pedigree champs from around the Gulf.

Scientific advances continue to be made in camel fertilisation and breeding programmes.

The camel's adaptation to the desert has led to a unique set of challenges in artificial insemination.

The animal is so good at conserving water that it produces only 3ml to 8ml of gel-like semen, a fraction compared with that of similarly sized animals such as horses. It freezes poorly.

It was only in 2018 that the first calves were born to females fertilised by frozen semen at Dubai Camel Breeding Centre.

Similar scientific breakthroughs at the Saudi hospital could change the very shape and size of future camels.