Sealed with a kiss: Middle East's most beautiful camels rake in Dh52 million at UAE's Al Dhafra festival

The finest specimens are fed milk with honey and have their coats rubbed with olive oil

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Fahya was the loudest camel at the gates of the judging pen and, according to her owners, the most beautiful.

She was paraded to the pageant shortly after dawn to enter the competition for the most beautiful three-year-old camel at Al Dhafra Festival.

Tuesday was the first day of competition at the 17-day event, where Dh52 million in prize money is dedicated to camel beauty pageantry.

Hundreds of camels crowded against the gates of the judging pen, encircled by fans, owners and handlers giving their humps a final brush or extra blast of hairspray.

The 'Super Bowl' of camel pageantry

The 'Super Bowl' of camel pageantry

Fahya was one of eight contenders from a family in the Dossari tribe of Wadi Al Dawasar in Saudi Arabia.

“Eight will participate and all are exceptional,” said Mohammed Mishar, 25, the cousin of Fahya’s owner.

He listed her attributes: “Her lips, her long nose, her tail, her height and she’s a Dossari.”

Yet her fur did not have the sheen of a champion.

He spends Dh10,000 a month on each camel to get it ready for the pageant. Our camels are more work than our jobs

Not like Al Ashwa, the fan favourite. She had the floppiest lips, a silky coat, a calm and regale composure as crowds surged around her.

Al Ashwa, owned by Salem Eida of Madinat Zayed, was the undefeated champion for her age.

“She won when she was one, she won when she was two,” said Salem Al Ameri, a relative of the owner.

“And she will win now that she’s three, inshallah,” added a passerby.

Fahya was certainly one of the largest at the gates. She measures three metres from toe to head but is still young. So she called for her mother with fortitude that matched her formidable stature.

Hamed Al Ameri and his friends from Madinat Zayed watched the scene from a distance, huddled in the sand, chewing sunflower seeds. He had entered four camels but had no doubt Al Ashwa would place first.

“She’s number one and worth two million [dirhams],” said Mr Al Ameri, 25.

He spent a year preparing four camels for his first pageant. They were fed fodder and protein powder, milk with honey and clarified butter. Every other day, he rubbed their coats with olive oil.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 10, 2019.  
  Al Dhafra Festival 2019.
--Winners of the two year old camel contest during the parade.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias
A boy shows off his family's award for most beautiful two-year-old camel during the winners' parade. Victor Besa / The National

“He spends Dh10,000 a month on each camel to get it ready for the pageant,” said his friend Saeed Salem. “Our camels are more work than our jobs.”

For young men in Madinat Zayed, an inland desert town with a population of 29,000, there is no greater prestige than a reputation as a breeder of desert superstars. With Dh52 million to win at the festival’s pageants and millions made in trading, it is a worthwhile investment for a young man.

“Victory first,” said Mr Al Ameri. “Then I’ll sell.”

The first champions of this year's festival were announced a few hours later in mid-afternoon. There was just one problem: that is nap time in Al Dhafra. When winners were announced, people were ensconced in tents avoiding the midday heat.

Mohammed Raqraqi, owner of two-year-old Mutawafa, a winner for her age group, was nowhere to be seen.

Mr Raqraqi, 75, spends little time at the grandstands nowadays. He was at his farm in the desert the company of his camels when he got phone calls of congratulations.

He quickly left to his camp at Al Dhafra and was ready to greet Mutawafa and a parade of well wishers who had driven, horns blazing, down the gatch road known as Millions Street and over the dunes to the family’s tent.

Mutawafa was in the youngest age group and with camels that age, you never can tell who will win.

“It’s a surprise,” said Mr Raqraqi’s relative, Ali Salem. “People didn’t think she would win. When the men sat in the coffee shop, they thought it would be another camel.”

It was no surprise for Mr Raqraqi, who bred Mutawafa from two camels he raised himself, Al Asra and Haidan.

Mr Raqraqi’s father was a wealthy camel trader and owned about 70 camels, a sign of great wealth in the mid twentieth century. Even the names of Mr Raqraqi’s camels are inherited. The name Al Malha (The Salt), has been passed down in his family for three generations.

“I have 80 camels and all of these 80 know me,” said Mr Raqraqi with pride. “If I go visit them in my car, they will crowd around me. If someone else does this, they will ignore him completely.”

“I can’t name one favourite among them. All are so dear to me.”

Al Dhafra Camel Festival is open to the public and runs until December 25 and is held at the festival site off Madinat Zayed.