Al Dhafra Festival 2017: How to spot a beautiful camel

Camel beauty pageants can seem unusual to the uninitiated, so here's our beginner's guide to getting the most out of the festival and to finding a prize-winning camel

The Al Dhafra Festival features a variety of heritage events including a camel beauty contest. Christopher Pike / The National
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For as long as people have sat bored by desert firelight, they have compared camels. In the last twenty years, however, camel pageantry has evolved into a multi-million-dirham industry and nowadays, beauty camels sell for millions. Long-term readers of The National might remember our 2013 Idiot's Guide to Camel Beauty. Here's a refresher for anyone headed to Al Dhafra Festival this weekend – our Camel Beauty 101.

What makes a camel beautiful?

Beauty is universal, so think in terms of elegant proportions. Camels are graded by a panel of judges according to a strict set of criteria. A beauty camel is admired for its long legs and neck, a shapely hump on the lower back, a large head, thick eyelashes, clear and expressive eyes, pert ears, dropping lips and dark colouring. Of course, it is not all superficial. Points are also given for the camel’s composure.

Two types of camels compete at Al Dhafra. First there is asayel, the sand-coloured local racing breed known for its sleek body that are often compared to saluki hounds. Then there is the chocolate-brown majaheem, towering in stature and curvaceous in shape.

Why is a camel worth millions?

It's simply a case of supply and demand. Until recent decades, the dark brown camels favoured at beauty competitions were known for their milk and worth relatively little. Today, these camels can fetch up to Dh10 million and win luxury vehicles. What's more, the top ten majahim in every category win prize money, with the consolation prize for tenth place still as much as Dh10,000. Camels are valued according to their most recent offer, but before you take out your chequebook and head to Millions Street, be warned: camels are not insured.

How do camels accessorize?

If you spent millions on a camel, you want it to look good. Camel tack can range from a simple flag draped over the hump to glittering reigns of plastic beads or faux-gold mortashas, a traditional necklace of stringed coins that shows off the neck. Omani and Saudi women travel across the Gulf to sell their wares at winter camel festivals and Al Dhafra is the biggest of them all, according to its organisers, so it is a good opportunity for shoppers to pick up a little sparkle too.

Why is that camel surrounded by dancing men?

Every superstar has its entourage and the beauty camel is a celebrity. Poets impressed by photos and videos of camels on social media will compose anthems in its name to be recited by renowned vocalists. Camels are paraded up and down the dirt track known as Millions Street and their supporters follow behind, dancing on foot or in the back of cars decorated in poetry extolling the camel’s fearsome power.

What else is going on?

Shooting competitions, date auctions, milking competitions, traditional markets, saluki races, Arabian horse races, poetry recitations and falcon trading. If it is part of the region’s Bedouin heritage, the chances are good you will find it at Al Dhafra.

When and where is Al Dhafra?

Al Dhafra Festival runs just south of Madinat Zayed in the Al Dhafra Region. It runs from Thursday, December 14 and until Thursday, Dec 28. Events are scheduled to run from 10am until 10pm, although celebrations and preparations happen around the clock.


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Where can I stay?

Abu Dhabi city is a two and a half hour drive from the festival, but a lot of fun can be had around the festival’s campfires after dark so it is worth spending the night. Most hotels in the area get booked up early, but camping is open to all. Do not expect a quiet retreat, however. Al Dhafra is a social gathering. Bring extra food and get your coffee pot ready to welcome guests. Alternatively, be prepared to accept many invitations to tea.

Is it safe for women?

Al Dhafra is a man’s world, but women are welcome everywhere and usually treated with respect. Women can camp in a designated family section near the traditional market and use washroom facilities at the onsite Tilal Liwa Hotel. Women and men should dress conservatively.