For a gathering of more than 24,000 camels, it was a quiet morning at Al Dhafra Festival.
Camels and their handlers arrived a week ago to the dunes south of Madinat Zayed, on the edge of the Empty Quarter, to set up camps with great tents and animal pens before millionaire camel owners arrived from the city.
Soon, they could get a great deal richer. There is Dh60 million in prize money at the 13th annual festival, with competitions for the best dates and sour milk, the fastest Saluki hounds and Arabian horses, and the most beautiful sheep and falcons.
One set of competitions takes centre stage: camel beauty pageants. Fluttering lashes, long legs and a full hump will bring Dh52m in prize money.
There are 81 camel beauty competitions, divided according to a camel’s age, breed and whether or not it is owned by a tribesman or a sheikh. Most prestigious of all is the bairaq, the best herd competition.
The first informal parade of the festival was a herd of 25 beauty camels from Baniyas, Abu Dhabi. Al Dhafra is a place of rumours, where information is spread by Snapchat and the fireside, and so word spread that the camels were Omani, and with that information came the assumption the camels would be sold at lower price than an Emirati-bred herd.
The animals sauntered down the gatch road name Millions Street, named after the millions offered to majestic camels sold there. Owners corralled the herd with SUVs, playing poetry about the beauty of camels to capture the attention of prospective buyers. Saudis and Emiratis wanted to buy camels to improve their herd before competition began.
Khalifa Al Mazrouei, an Emirati from the small desert city of Ghayathi, followed the Baniyas herd in his white SUV. “The reddish one,” he said, pointing to Sheikha, a four-year-old beauty queen with a thick, fluffy tuft of hair atop her hump, that he wanted to buy.
Mr Al Mazrouei brought 22 of his best camels to compete at this year’s festival but when saw Sheikha, he was thinking ahead. In 2020, he plans to participate in the best herd competition, which has a prize of Dh3 million. Sheikha could complete his dream herd.
Mr Al Mazrouei drove alongside her handlers and chatted to them from the window of his SUV. Who was her father? Who was her mother? Where was their camp? He planned to offer Dh500,000.
But they did not talk prices. Instead, phone numbers were exchanged and Sheikha’s owners were confident potential buyers would soon visit their tent to make a formal offer.
“The people are getting to know us,” said Mohammed Salem, one of Sheikha’s handlers. “We walk Millions Street in the morning, when nobody else is there so that all eyes are on her. In the afternoon, Millions Street is too crowded, there is too much traffic.”
Mr Salem and his friends came to Al Dhafra last week to set up tents for guests and pens for the camels. Every night, once their work was complete, they chatted by the burning embers of a fire. “We have come to Al Dhafra to relax,” said Mr Salem. “It’s good, a change from the house, from the city and the traffic.
“Even if we lose money, my heart would be content.”
A loss is unlikely. Sheikha will not be sold for less than Dh700,000 and one buyer has already privately said he will pay Dh1m for her.
The weeks ahead look promising. By the afternoon, there was speculation on Million's Street and in the grandstands overlooking the beauty competition about this year’s biggest herd competitors, including rumours about a Saudi merchant known simply as “The Brigadier”.
The most beautiful camels of Al Dhafra are eulogised in poetry and become household names in Abu Dhabi’s western Al Dhafra region.
“You walk around and say, ‘praise be to God, look at that camel and, praise be to God, look at that camel,’” said Saeed Al Mehri, 50, an Omani trainer from the Dhofar Governorate in southern Oman. "They are all beautiful."
Mr Salem nodded. “The heart is content."