A day in the life of a camel debutante

It's not every day a young camel makes her debut in the beauty contest at Al Dhafra, and Kaydah was so nervous she did a runner - with her family of minders and fans in hot pursuit.

Saleh Al Dossary at his camp with relatives and friends at Al Dhafra Festival. Jeff Topping / The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Kaydah was a late bloomer. But for a camel, that is not unusual.

Those who herd and adore the animals agree that camels are not, by nature, beautiful babies. Calves have small, pinched heads, ungainly legs and no hump to boast about.

Kaydah entered her first beauty contest when she was 4 - an age when camels are mature enough to be at their best.

"We start because every year she's becoming more beautiful," says Kaydah's owner, Jaber Nassar Al Dossary. "Not all camels are beautiful when they're born, no."

To Jaber's delight, Kaydah won first prize in a field of 45 camels at a November competition for the Dowarsir tribe of eastern Saudi Arabia, a tribe famed for its camels.

Kaydah was no doubt oblivious that she was the pride of the Dowarsir when she arrived at Al Dhafra as a beauty debutante, but she arrived in style with three tents, a 13-man support team and her adopted calf Doubdoub, or teddy bear.

Kaydah's self-appointed manager was Saleh, her owner's brother. A man of 50 with peppered hair and moustache, Saleh has unbridled ambition for the family's beloved camel. "I am the leader," he says. "I am always the leader. At work I am the leader, in the tent I am the leader. My brother, he's shy. He does not sing or dance, you know?"

It was Saleh who entered her in the tribal beauty contest and it was his idea to bring her to Al Dhafra. Every family decision is by consensus but it is Saleh who had the steadfast determination and optimism to believe that Kaydah could compete against camel royalty.

"Tuesday, this is my time," he says. "After we win we will go back home.

"My relatives, psychologically we are happy, we are not like some other people who feel nervous. Here, really, you know it's more difficult because most of the participants are rich and they buy for millions. They are not camel lovers. They buy them. I raised her."

Victory, though, was far from a sure thing. Kaydah was an underdog among the 25,000 camels competing for Dh64 million in prizes. It is a sport where rivals deploy spies and conceal camels.

Competitions are divided by age and breed, light or dark. Kaydah was up against more than 60 dark camels.

A security consultant by day for Aramco, the Saudi oil company, Saleh made Kaydah his full-time priority. He is a man of insistent hospitality and relentless advice, and considers it his duty to ensure that Kaydah is surrounded by an entourage. He is continuously on his iPhone to friends ("Tuesday. Prepare yourself and come here") and his mother ("Kaydah says hello").

As others contestants prepped their camels, Saleh organised his camp.

Beauty camels do not travel light. An entire lorry of camp equipment arrived with Kaydah for Saleh's family, who were to act as her adoring fans. They slept in a 16 by 17 metre tent, covered with 21 Persian carpets and deep red cushions, strung with generator-powered lights and decorated with Saudi flags. The main tent served as both meeting hall and resting place.

A second tent contained sleeping bags, pairs of shoes and hanging kanduras still wrapped in plastic from the laundry.

At Al Dhafra, appearance is all important. Camels wear necklaces, men are continuously trimming their moustaches and women wear velvet at 9am. Every man has a supply of pressed kanduras at hand. Through sandstorms and rain, kanduras stay spotless.

The camels provide an opportunity for people across the Arabian Gulf to unite. A man's dress, camel and tent are a reflection of himself, his family and his tribe.

Saleh's camp life revolved around a pit of smouldering coals. The family constantly dug new pits, buried coals and brewed pots of coffee spiced with cloves and cardamom for guests.

Long lost cousins were rediscovered. Brothers arrived with their sons. Strangers were welcomed with tea and conversations about family. Men talked until they could find a lineage connection with strangers. At Al Dhafra, the obsession with pedigree is not limited to falcons and camels.

Saleh's thoughts focus on the future.

"See?" He pointed at a mess of golden tinsel on the back seat of his brother's Lexus. "This is Kaydah."

Kaydah stood a few metres away, unaware that a jewelled belt was about to encircle her hump for her first walk down Millions Road, the track where owners parade their camels.

"Every bedu likes new things," said Saleh.

He said he hoped by showing her he would strike such fear in the hearts of competitors that they would withdraw. In reality it was a test run to ensure Kaydah did not panic on competition day when confronted with the mayhem that is Millions Road en route to the grandstands.

Kaydah rushed from her pen, her handlers chasing after her. Saleh's men sped off in their 4x4s in pursuit. As his relatives struggled to calm the animal, Saleh concentrated on music. He had three CDs filled with music about camels but searched for one song. Every beauty camel has its theme song and Kaydah has hers.

Half of her men followed in cars, half danced around her, twirling camel sticks and hopping from toe to toe. Friends joined the convoy when it passed their tents.

Rivals approached. Saleh braked and cranked the music. His men danced furiously. Drivers stopped on the road to watch, bearded grandfathers filmed the dance on their iPhones.

Such Saudi dance-offs are a common sight on Millions Road where they attract buyers and inspire impromptu camel auctions.

Kaydah's drooping lips, pert eyes and large nose attracted admiration but no offers. She is considered small for her age.

"She's good but she's not top three," said Rashed Al Mehali, 33, a spectator. "If she's three years, maybe. Four years, no. Her head is not so big."

But Saleh's confidence grew as days passed and relatives arrived from Saudi Arabia.

Competition day began with Kaydah at the gates of the beauty pen with a crowd of 30 men by 7am. Camel superstars passing through the gate included Mahmiya, whose owner refused a Dh3 million offer for her hours before competition.

Kaydah was placed in the second division.

Saleh's relatives filled rows in the grandstands between dancing and cheering young men. Saleh disappeared to slaughter a sheep for the anticipated celebration.

Kaydah made it to the top 15, but was trumped by larger beasts with bigger humps.

Saleh returned, his optimism undiminished. The top 10 entrants had to swear their camel's age on the Quran. Saleh suspected his competitors had lied about the age of their enormous beasts. They were older, he said. They would not be able to swear on the Quran.

But they did.

"Some camels here are very huge and aggressive," said Saleh. "People bring camels that are six years," said Saleh. "We saw them at the gates. We have experts from our family, they know these things. They know very well. And those people swear to God like this?"

"Nobody tells the truth," said his brother Jaber.

An Emirati camel, Asala ("honey") was declared the winner with a score of 97 per cent.

Saleh would not say exactly where Kaydah was placed in the top 15. "After 10," he said. He declared it a victory.

"You know, those other camels outside the gates were worth two and three million and Kaydah was better."

Kaydah's men convened at their camp for a sheep kabsa lunch and a discussion on their debutante's resounding success: almost top 10, up there with the camels of sheikhs and millionaires.

"There is another competition in Kuwait in January," said Saleh. "January 15. This is my time."