It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so say camel lovers. An estimated 20,000 camels from across the Arabian Peninsula will descend on the Empty Quarter this week for the tenth edition of the Al Dhafra Festival.
The organiser, the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee - Abu Dhabi, believe it is the world’s largest camel beauty pageant, where 1,500 competitors and their 15,000 beauty camels will compete for Dh38 million in prizes and the chance for international prestige. Prizes include Nissan sports utility vehicles and Dh30 million in cash prizes.
Set in the dunes outside Madinat Zayed, the festival begins this Thursday, December 14 at 10am with a milking competition, a classic car competition at the festival’s traditional market and a shooting competition.
New this year is a competition dedicated to shellah, a type of melodic Bedouin poetry.
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Shellah plays an essential role in the camel beauty industry, thanks in large part to the fame of Al Dhafra Festival's Millions Street, a broad dirt road beside the judging pens where camels are paraded up and down between competitions. As camels strut past onlookers, high-pitched shellah anthems extolling a camel’s beauty are blared through car speakers and admirers circle their camels, dancing alongside them and twirling sticks. This can attract wealthy bidders and drive the camel’s price higher or push intimidate rivals into withdrawing before the competition.
The best camels at Al Dhafra have shellah anthems composed in their honour, often overlaid with the clash of lighting to substitute musical instruments that some Al Dhafra participants would find at odds with their conservative religious beliefs.
The shellah competition is scheduled to run most evenings at 6pm from Sunday, December 17.
This year’s most prestigious event, the competition for best herd, will take place on Friday, December 22 and Saturday, December 23.
Al Dhafra is an important political unifier in the Gulf and one of the largest non-religious gatherings of Gulf citizens from the Arabian Peninsula. Thousands of men will set up camp in the dunes surrounding the judging grounds, keeping their fires burning and the coffee brewing for unexpected guests.
Pre-registration is not required and all nationalities are welcome to compete.
"Registration is open to all owners of asayal and majahim beauty camels," said Mohammed Al Muhairi, the festival's director. "It doesn't matter if they are from the Emirates or the United States."
Camels from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE are expected to compete, although owners from Qatar will be absent from this year’s festival.
The judging panel will be exclusively Emirati this year, in contrast to the mixed panels of the past. “We have people who are trusted and capable, so we have no shortage of good judges,” said Obaid Al Mazrouei, the planning and projects director at the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee - Abu Dhabi.
It is not just about beauty. There are a total of 1,400 prizes on offer. Farmers from Al Dhafra have been saving their best dates for the most prestigious date auction of the year, which starts on Friday morning and is followed by a falcon auction at 2pm. Traditional cooking competitions, Arabian saluki races and Arabian horse races will take place throughout the festival alongside the main event. There is also a brand new competition for the best goat on Wednesday, October 27.
The festival is free and open to the public.