At the court of the camel kings in Abu Dhabi

Tradition is important at Al Dhafra Camel Festival, but these days money counts as well. Anna Zacharias reports on the changing of the guard at this year's contest.

Saudi millionaire Nasser bin Mersan Alhajri at his majlis at the Al Dhafra Festival. Jeff Topping / The National
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They began 20 years ago as a way to settle a family rivalry. Now camel beauty contests are a massive multimillion-dirham business with its heart in Al Dhafra. Anna Zacharias reports

Rames Saleh did not intend to commodify camel beauty. He simply wanted to prove his father-in-law wrong.

Rames knew his camels were the most beautiful in the Empty Quarter and they were certainly more beautiful than his father-in-law's herd.

After another debate, he decided to settle the matter once and for all.

He dispatched his brother and friend to cross 70 kilometres of the Empty Quarter in search of three independent camel experts.

They were offered 6,000 riyals to return to Rames's camp as judges. Meanwhile, Rames convinced another four men to match their camels against his for a prize of 12,000 riyals.

On the eve of the judging, the men sat in their tent in the Empty Quarter and argued into the night over who would win.

"We don't remember what words were said," recalled Rames's sister Alyaziah, 70. "They talked and talked and talked."

That was in 1993.

Nearly 20 years later the scene is repeated every year at Al Dhafra festival in Abu Dhabi. Except that these days thousands compete and millions are made and lost.

It is all for namoos, a word of congratulations reserved for camels, falcons and cars that has made these camel beauty contests an Arabian Gulf obsession.

Rames, the bedu grandfather in the wool jacket, is the founder and original king of such contests.

In his time, an eye for pedigree was enough for success.

After several successful challenges against friends and family, Rames realised that this could also be a business.

"He said, 'I will let everybody know about the camels'," recalled his son, Naji, 35. "Everybody laughed. Now nobody laughs."

The first competitions that Rames sponsored were small affairs for large, black milking camels that were of little economic value at the time.

True camel fever caught on after Gulf royalty began to sponsor competitions as a way to preserve the Gulf's camel culture.

One result was that the value of Rames's herd increased tenfold.

Rames achieved his success with his self proclaimed "eagle eye" for pedigree. Men such as he do not know borders. They belong to the desert, not to a country, travelling from spring to spring in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and beyond.

He arrived at Al Dhafra with 60 camels that had walked from their camp outside Riyadh - more than 800km, covered at 25km a day. He set up two family campsites from goat-hair tents: one for men and one for women. Rames has married 16 times, twice in honour of his camels.

Now 60, Rames's daily life continues to revolve around his camels. At sunset on the eve of a competition he walks to his camel pen with a suitcase of tinselled camel tack. His relatives follow.

"All the gladiators are inside," said Naji, motioning to the camels. "All are warriors."

The top gladiator camels are Al Waheeda and Al Wakhofa, The Only One and The Frightening. They are about two metres to the shoulder.

Rames, who wears a dark kandura and wool jacket to protect himself from the chilly air, has come to dress his camels for the next day's competition.

The sisters who made the tack sit slightly removed from the men, observing from a distance.

"You see the glory is better when the family is all together," said his sister Alyaziah.

The women are as competitive as the men. The family are here to win, but victory comes at a high price.

These days, business acumen is at least as important as a history of husbandry. Competitions cost owners millions. Few, if any, profit. "You give, give, give. You don't take," said Naji. "Sometimes if you throw words you die for this word."

The sons have concerns about the cost of competitions year after year. "If you want to stay in this festival for 15 years you have to have a strategy for this. My father has a strategy but it's for the pedigree."

Naji has tried to convince his father that a victory would be sweeter every second or third year. "Like lobster. If you eat it two times, three times, it's not good. But if you eat every three days, it's good. It's the same with this competition."

After much speculation, Rames told his family that he would not compete in the competition's top event this year, the best herd of 50 camels.

And so Rames's reign as camel king may be over. These days, natural talent is no longer enough. Strategy and money are essential.

When the self-made Saudi millionaire Nasser Mersan arrived at Al Dhafra, everyone knew the game was up.

Nasser's arrival was announced by posters with directions to his campsite that appeared across Al Dhafra.

Not that anyone could would miss it. It rose in the desert south of Al Dhafra like a small city.

The main 16,000 square metre marquee was styled in the manner of a sheikh's palace. The tent's main hall featured chandeliers, 108 gold and burgundy Persian rugs, golden curtains, gilded throne-like chairs for 150 guests and a staff of 45 to serve them.

Two large screens aired Saudi news and newsreel from camel competitions.

More than 100 people arrived for lunch each day: the curious, the adoring, the envious, fans and former owners of his camel superstars. Baked salmon was served alongside the traditional platters of goat kebsa.

Welcome to the new world of the camel champions.

Nasser is the undisputed kingpin after his January victory for the best herd of 100 in Saudi Arabia. A Dhafra victory is almost assured thanks to Nasser's business acumen.

As well dressed as his camels, he wears round spectacles and a jacket cut in the same mustard cloth as his kandura.

Nasser did not concern himself with the individual competitions. He came to win a hattrick of the best herd categories, best herds of six, 20 and 50 camels.

"It's very simple," said Nasser's relative, the Kuwaiti camel expert Sa'ad bin Hamda. "We know what they have. We make sure that we have better camels than them."

A few days before, Nasser bought a Dh9 million camel when he heard that a competitor was interested.

"Whatever we have, a bedouin would have from breeding in 60 years, maybe 70 years," said Nasser's son Shafi, 26. "My father, it is known that he pays. Whatever the deal, he won't leave you without the payment."

This is not true of all herders. Owners and buyers circulate false rumours about which camels have been bought or sold to manipulate their competitors and open wallets. Shafi compares these men to used car salesmen.

"There are dealers and dealers are very smart. Not smart but they know how to play it."

"In this field of business, some of them are telling lies."

Nasser has a reputation as an honest businessman and quiet strategist. A self-made contractor who builds petrochemical refineries, he started his business, the NHS Corporation, in 1978 and, in his son's words, worked "from zero … until he became what he is, a millionaire."

Nasser has married once, has six children and lived in a 150 square metre house until 2008.

He began to collect camels after a desert camping trip with cousins in 2000 and now owns 238.

While Nasser is relatively new to camels he is an old hand at business. He knows how to plan and delegate.

His relative and the camp's architect, Mansoori bin Mohammed, flew from Kuwati to Abu Dhabi on October 24 to scout out a location. Construction took 25 days.

"I want guests to feel that they are at home," said Mansoori. "I want them to feel that they are coming here, man to man."

Nasser placed his camel tack order with the Saudi queen of camel bling, Umm Khalid, six months in advance. They designed a rhinestone Saudi motif of green swords and palm trees that cost Dh1,000 a piece. Nasser ordered 70 and absolute confidentiality.

"It was a secret. We had to do all the work in the house," said Rajab Shaban. "Every year he phones her."

At Al Dhafra, rivals and fans alike were confident of Nasser's victory.

"Nasser Mersan, this guy buys millions," said Nasser Al Marri, 42, a first time Saudi participant. "Before last night he bought one camel for Dh9 million. The guy who does that, I think he will win. That's our expectation."

When Nasser parades his camels, he competes with the pride and honour that motivated Rames nearly 20 years ago. In that way, the game is unchanged. But these days, it takes a new style of player.