For thousands of years the camel, the embodiment of the Bedouin way of life, has been a source of food, drink, medicine and transport. More than that, they have been faithful friends.

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Ali al Kathir knows the value – and the cost – of the camel. For generations his family lived in the remote desert of the Empty Quarter, "following the rains" and relying on the animal for their livelihood and, indeed, their survival.

Today he has a modern home in Abu Dhabi and a fleet of cars, but he keeps 50 or so camels on a small farm, a family relic, between the capital and Al Ain.

It has no electricity and he runs it, he says, in the same way his grandfather would have done, even though it costs him Dh40,000 (US$10,900) a month to staff and maintain.

He does so, he says, because he regards it as vital to be able to bring his children to the desert at the weekend to remind them where they came from.

The camel is the very embodiment of the Bedouin way of life, the central element of a harsh history that still lives in the memory of all but the youngest generations in the UAE.

For his parents’ generation and beyond, says Mr al Kathir, "there were no hospitals, sometimes it was a struggle to find food, there was no entertainment, TV, air conditioning. In the past, life was simple, but very tough."

The camel symbolises this toughness. But more than that, for the Bedouin the camel has always been an indispensable asset, without which life at the extreme would not have been possible: a form of transport, a beast of burden, a warrior’s mount, a source of food and drink – and faithful companion.

In the days when human life expectancy was far shorter than it is today, a camel – capable of living as long as 50 years – could be a friend for life and might even outlive its owner.

To Sir Alec Issigonis, the British designer of the popular Mini, launched in 1959, the camel was "a horse designed by committee". But Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer and writer who travelled extensively in the region in the late 1940s, crossing the Empty Quarter twice, understood the true worth of the animal. "Many Englishmen have written about camels," he wrote in his 1959 book, Arabian Sands. "When I open a book and see the familiar disparagement, the well-worn humour, I realise that the author’s knowledge of them is slight, that he has never lived among the Bedu."

To Arabs, he wrote, "camels are beautiful, and they derive as great a pleasure from looking at a good camel as some Englishmen get from looking at a good horse.

"There is indeed a tremendous feeling of power, rhythm and grace about these great beasts. I certainly know few sights finer than mounted Arabs travelling fast on well-bred camels."

Small wonder, wrote Thesiger, that the camel was regarded as "‘Ata Allah’, or God’s gift, they call her, and it is her patience that wins the Arab’s heart. I have never seen a Bedu strike or ill-treat a camel.

"Always the camels’ needs come first. It is not only that the Bedu’s existence depends upon the welfare of his animals, but that he has a real affection for them."

This is a relationship that dates back thousands of years – but until last summer, just how many thousands was unclear.

The forerunner of the camel is believed to have originated in North America, between 33 million and 55 million years ago. Some are thought to have migrated south, evolving into the humpless llama and alpaca, to which the modern camel is related, while others migrated across the Bering Strait to Asia.

Fossils show that by the Pleistocene Age – 10,000 to 1.8 million years ago – the camel had extended its territory to regions including North Africa and Palestine.

In August 2008, archaeologists with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage announced they had found a camel "graveyard" among dunes deep in Al Gharbia, (the Western Region), estimated to be more than 6,000 years old.

Quite why so many were found together remains something of a mystery; at that time the region would have been covered with lakes, so the site could have been a watering hole. On the other hand, many flint arrowheads were also found, suggesting the presence of human hunters, yet none of the skeletons bore signs of butchery.

Previously, following finds of bones on Umm an-Nar island off Abu Dhabi, which suggested domestication, experts had thought man’s relationship with camels first developed in the Arabian peninsula during the Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago. But the Al Gharbia bones were carbon-dated to up to 2,000 years earlier and the relatively small size of some of the animals suggested they were domesticated, rather than wild. Other remains, found at Jebel al-Buhais in Sharjah, hinted at a later ritualistic relationship between man and camel.

The find, a "curious discovery that relates to the transition between the pre-Islamic and the Islamic period", was documented in the 2001 book United Arab Emirates: A New Perspective, edited by Ibrahim al Abed and Peter Hellyer.

Archaeologists unearthed a grave containing the remains of what was thought to have been a warrior and those of a camel, apparently sacrificed to be buried with him. Evidence of camel sacrifice from earlier times was already well known; this site was different because it was from much later in history – the contents of the camel’s stomach were carbon-dated to between 640 and 680AD – indicating "a period of transition as the country gradually had its social practices transformed and the impact of Islam took grip".

In war and peace, the camel continued to be a vital component of life right up until recent times. "Less than 50 years ago our lives hung in the balance almost daily," recalled Mohammed al Fahim in his 1995 book From Rags to Riches – A Story of Abu Dhabi. His own life was almost lost as a small child in 1950, during what was then the perilous, seven-day journey across the desert from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain. The trek through the dunes in the hot sun was strenuous and tiring, he wrote, "and my mother dozed off from exhaustion. I slipped from her arms, became entangled in her dress and dangled on the side of the camel for quite some time before an aunt ... turned back to see me suspended, swinging back and forth with the camel’s gait".

Today, he added, "my own children sleep in the comfort of air conditioning whenever we make the two-hour trip between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. Times have changed."

Featuring as such a central plank in human existence, it is hardly surprising that many beliefs sprang up about the camel. One, that camel’s milk and urine contains many medicinal properties, written in the "saheeh hadith", says that when some people went to the holy city of Medina and fell ill, Allah told them to drink the milk and urine of camels and they recovered.

Modern science has found more than a shred of truth in this; scientists led by Dr Sabah Jassim from the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine in Abu Dhabi have suggested that because camels are highly resistant to many deadly viral diseases, their antibodies could be used to create new drugs to treat humans.

Today, despite the roads and the cars, the camel still occupies a central place in Emirati culture, and not simply as a symbol. The two main types found in the Emirates are the black hizami camels, prized for their meat and milk, and the yellow racing camels.

The hizami, originally from Saudi Arabia, are larger. Valued for their looks, they compete in beauty pageants, in which they are judged on a number of qualities, from the length of their necks to the size of their lips.

Soughan, zebyan, hamloul and shaheen are the most popular breeds of racing camel, many of which originate locally, from countries including Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan. The gift of a camel is still regarded as a prestigious present for a wedding. The price can range from Dh2,000 to Dh10 million, for a potential racing champion or an animal valued for its beauty.

But no matter how devoted Emiratis remain to the camel, few today will know first-hand anything of the bond that once existed between man and animal in the harsh years before the age of oil.

Thesiger was lucky enough to witness it – and posterity was fortunate that he recorded what he saw. Drinking warm, slightly salty milk straight from the udder, he noted that female camels were the preferred animal of choice – "they live largely on camels’ milk and have no desire to squander food on animals which can make no return" – and marvelled at their riders’ skills.

He discovered that the Bedu were "always ready to suffer hardship themselves in order to spare their animals. Several times when travelling with them and approaching a well, I have expected them to push on and fill the water-skins, as our water was finished, but they have insisted on halting for the night short of the well, saying that farther on there was no grazing."

It is all of this, and more, that inspires Mr al Kathir and others like him to keep alive a nation’s links to the camel, an animal that is nothing less than "a symbol of the past ... my national identity. It is my life, it is my history. My children must understand this."