Al Dhafra camel festival: campfire gossip and rumours swirl

Saudis once came to Al Dhafra to win. Now they come to test debutant camels and scout undiscovered talent

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Ali Al Qahtani lifted his silver-tipped cane to the starry night as the first notes of synthesised poetry blasted from nearby loudspeakers.

Sleema, the one-year-old debutant, had won in the youngest category of baby beauty camels and celebrations were in full swing.

The dance party would be the first of hundreds in the Gulf’s winter camel pageantry season.

Each December, the Al Dhafra Festival, now something of a prelude to similar events in Saudi Arabia, draws an estimated 24,000 camels to the edge of the UAE's Empty Quarter.

In part, competitors are tempted in by the Dh52 million in prize money, but pride and prestige are also to be considered.

“It is a gathering of the champions,” said Mr Al Qahtani, 22, who revealed a little of the rivalry between Emirati and Saudi Arabia competitors as he danced.

“The champions of Saudi and the champions of the Emirates.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 10, 2019.  
  --Men of the Dawasr tribe from Saudi Arabia relax after a victory at the Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias

Later in the evening, fireside conversation turns to upcoming pageants a thousand kilometres to the northwest, in the desert north of Riyadh.

Saudis once came to Al Dhafra to win. Now they come to test their debutant camels and scout undiscovered talent by camel breeders from bedu towns like Madinat Zayed and Ghayathi.

“If we don’t get victory, we go home,” said Mohammed Al Ulayan, 48, a competitor from eastern Saudi Arabia. “If we get victory, we go to the King Abdulaziz Festival.”

Incredibly, the Al Dhafra Festival is by no means the biggest in the Gulf.

That distinction goes to the newer King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, which launched in 2017 and had Dh116.7 million in prizes in 2018 with a reported 38,000 beasts.

Saudi Arabia has a reputation for the best camel queens and top pageantry strategy.

Yet no Saudi has ever won the Dh3million prize at Al Dhafra for the biggest and best herd, or bairaq.

Could a Saudi finally clinch the title in 2019? Campfire gossip over leading Saudi contenders was at feverpitch.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 11,2019.  
  -- Hamed Jabber Al Jilab, 23 and Sleema the camel, 7, at the Al Dhafra Festival.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias

Mohammed Bin Awad was a favourite from the Dawasir tribe camp where Al Qahtani danced.

“You have to buy and buy well,” said Bin Awad’s brother, Fahd. “Bin Awad has been buying. Every year, he’s bought 15 more camels. This may be the year, God willing.”

On the first morning of the two-week festival, the Dawasir family draped their camels in signature blue and white blankets and paraded them up Millions Street to signal the herd’s prowess.

It’s a well-recognised strategy to inspire awe in fans and intimidate the prospective competition.

But while the Dawasir made their presence known, other Saudis arrived in secret.

In the dunes to the west, a mega tent was rising. The Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Khaled, reigning champion and two-time winner of best herd of 50 at King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, was on his way.

“All the competitors are afraid of this man,” said Mohammed Saeed Al Merri, 49, a Saudi camel owner who had set up in the dunes nearby.

“He will participate in the bairaq but the Emiratis don’t know yet.” “No one knows,” nodded his friend Hamed Saleh, 30. “No one.”

The prince’s herd was expected to arrive in three days. Amongst the superstars would be five-year-old Al Dhayer and a four-year-old camel from Madinat Zayed purchased for Dh4 million last year and renamed Saudia.

“In all the Gulf, there are but two great camels, Saudia and Al Dhayer,” said Mr Al Merri. “He paid seven million for Al Dhayer.”

The titan Al Dhayer, no less than three metres tall, was bought from Talal Al Ghanam, a former Saudi bairaq winner.

The men at Al Merri’s camp were not worried about competition from Talal Al Ghanam in Al Dhafra. “He’s in Saudi,” they said.

In fact, Al Ghanam’s camels had quietly arrived in Al Dhafra 18-hours earlier and settled into a camp to the east.

Mr Ulayan had seen the herd arrive with his own eyes from his own tent on a high dune overlooking Millions Road.

This, said Mr Ulayan, was lesson one in pageantry. A player must judge strategy by action alone, not fireside talk or social media rumour. Words are all part of the game.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 10, 2019.  
  ---Mohammed Fahd Al Ulayan, 48, from Saudi Arabia relaxes at his tent at the Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias

“It’s the same as a game of football,” said Mr Ulayan. “A player can say, yes I’ll do this or I’ll do that. Ok, sure, maybe he will do what he says.

“But where are the camels? All of these men have their camels in Saudi. We don’t know if they will play the game or not until we see the camels.”

Rule number two in camel pageantry? Expect the unexpected. Any camel can be a wildcard.

“The camel games are the same as a joker in the deck.”

Al Dhafra Camel Festival is open to the public and runs until December 25 at the festival site off Madinat Zayed. The bairaq competition will be on December 22.