Hunting for a winner in the UAE camel stakes

The annual camel auction at Adihex is not for the novice bidder.

Salem Obaid Al Jabri, Moahmmed Al Khabi and Adel Aldhanhani make traditional Arabic ghawa at the Abu Dhabi international hunting and equestrian exhibition.
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ABU DHABI // Fatima Ali did not need a number - all the camel auctioneers already knew her.

Men shouted congratulations each time the auctioneer announced the new sum offered by "the daughter of the Emirates" in her bidding war against a singer turned racer.

It was Friday night and the annual camel auction at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition was in full swing. Curious tourists had left the arena hours earlier. The people who stayed meant business.

Ms Ali and her daughter Aisha sat slightly apart from the other camel VIPs - a privilege of being the UAE's only female camel racer the past 25 years.

She raised her hennaed fingers time and again but lost to Muabarak bin Owd, who took camel 352B for Dh200,000.

"It's a lot, 200," said Ms Ali as the hammer came down. "120 is OK but 200? No."

The camel auction is not for novices. Visitors were given books filled with side profile photographs of 14 baby camels that look, to the uninitiated, identical.

A box beside each photo gave the camels' date-of-birth and two generations of lineage. Each name carried a specific meaning to owners, who remember camel races dating back generations.

One page had pictures of the camels' mothers. Another had a single large photo of Al Jabbar - known to some as "the grandfather" for his prodigious racetrack record that makes him a favourite stud for embryo transfer.

The mothers are as famous as the retired racers.

The prospect of an offspring from such a pedigree attracts buyers from across the Arabian Gulf.

Four friends from Kuwait had front-row seats at the grandstand, looking at the offspring of Meekhaf, a famous son of Al Jabbar and the female Abeer.

"Al Jabbar took too many wives," said a Kuwaiti who identified himself as Abdullah.

"Abeer is the best one. Not only for racing, she's beautiful for everything. Abeer is like Diana, you know Princess Diana?"

The seats around them filled with curious onlookers new to the world of camel auctions. The stage faced seats at the side reserved for the Arabian Gulf's camel elite, serious bidders who dreamt that the young camels on auction might someday become a household name like Al Jabbar.

Camel auctions do not offer bargains; they are equivalent to high-end art sales.

Bidders like Ms Ali are welcomed by name, seated on plump, cushioned chairs and served saffron flatbread, dumplings drizzled in date syrup and coconut pancakes as baby camels are paraded in the sandy arena before them.

It can be a little confusing. Even an expert like Ms Ali had some difficulty matching the camels before her with those in the book she had selected.

"Look at that colour," she said, pointing to a page.

"I'd pay Dh70,000 for that one and Dh100,000 for that one."

As Ms Ali frantically flipped pages, the husky voice of Saif Omer Al Kitbi continued in rapid-fire fashion, a freestyle monologue honed from 25 years of experience as a race commentator.

He has worked as an auctioneer since the first camel auctions started in the UAE 12 years ago.

Bids started at Dh20,000 for males and Dh30,000 for females. The camels offered were born last year and had matured to an age where they could begin serious training for competitive races.

Mr Al Kitbi was disappointed by the night's results.

The highest bid was Dh250,000 - a pittance, he said. "Only Dh1.7 million from 20 pieces."

Ms Ali, however, was delighted. She redeemed herself with a winning bid on one of the last camels auctioned and left with photos of other prospects on her BlackBerry.

"Thanks to God," she said as men lined up to congratulate her after the auction.

"Men," she said. "Where do they come from? They come from inside a woman. But men don't give us respect."