Welcome to Millions Street, where thriving market offers traders a slice of Al Dhafra Festival fortune

Every year, people blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit flock to Al Dhafra Festival to sell everything from hearty meals to camel shampoo to thousands of visitors

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For three weeks a year, Millions Street shines.

The gatch road is the centre of the Al Dhafra Festival, which attracts 24,000 camel beauty queens competing for Dh52 million in pageantry prize money.

Where there are camels, there is wealth. So entrepreneurs come for their share of the millions exchanged between camel traders from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait during the festival.

As the festival begins, the dirt road the camel superstars stride down to the judging pen transforms into an open-air market of tents, caravans and food trucks catering to every need of man and beast.

Stars in the inky desert sky are obscured by garlands of colourful lights and neon signboards advertising launderettes, restaurants, groceries, cafes, and tobacco shops.

The duneside market is a microcosm of Madinat Zayed, the nearby Bedouin city of 29,000 inhabitants that empties during the festival as families flock set up camp at the event.

Most Million Street businesses are pop-ups of permanent shops in Madinat Zayed.

“Right now there’s no one in Madinat Zayed,” said Ahmed Etisham, a laundryman from Delhi who works from a tent on Millions Street. “So we come here.”

There are baqala corner shops offering the usual assortment of bug spray, biscuits, detergent, matchboxes, tinned milk, crisps, energy drinks, Uno playing cards and even two litre tubs of camel shampoo.

“We have everything,” said Faisal Malik, a clerk at a tented baqala.

Well, almost everything.

An SUV pulled up and a passenger asked for cough drops.

“Do you have any Vicks?” he asked.

“No Vicks,” said Mr Malik. “Try that one.” He pointed to a rival baqala across the road.

There are four launderettes in one dusty cul-de-sac: Moonlight, Habiba, Gentle and Red Robe.

Presentation and reputation are all important for the festival’s camel traders and a clean, pressed kandura is essential.

At Red Robe Laundry, Mr Etisham presses 50 kandoras a day, averaging Dh500 in daily sales. He has worked at the festival for six seasons.

“Laundry’s here and money’s available, so why not clean it?” said Mohammed Al Mazrouei, 45, a customer from Riyadh handing over his kandura to Mr Etisham.

Hospitality, too, is paramount and businesses know this.

Unexpected guests at the camp?

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 10, 2019.  
  -- Mohammed Shaddad, from Bangladesh, runs one of two tobacco shops on Millions Street  at the Al Dhafra Festival.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias
Mohammed Shaddad, from Bangladesh, runs one of two tobacco shops on Millions Street at the Al Dhafra Festival. Victor Besa / The National

Mohammed Abdullah is prepared. The second-generation restaurateur sells takeaway platters of mandi, a rice and meat dish, from his Yemeni restaurant, Eye of the Gulf Restaurant and Kitchen.

Mr Abdulla’s father opened the first mandi restaurant in the small Saudi-UAE border town of Sila in 1999. There was little else in Sila and that was the point. A restaurant should open where people are on the move, he reasoned.

“If people are on the road, they’ll eat more than in the city,” said Mr Abdulla. “The city has houses and people eat in the home. But on the road, they’ve still got to eat.”

Mr Abdulla learnt from his father and opened a pop-up branch from a trailer at the camel festival in 2017.

Other entrepreneurs profit from cold desert nights. Nizamuddin Saluddin, 45, averages Dh500 a night selling nothing but winter blankets from a roadside tent. He normally works at Abu Dhabi’s carpet souq by Mina Zayed. “As long as it’s cold, they sell,” he said.

The tent next to his is stocked with leather jackets from a shop on Abu Dhabi’s Electra Street. Another tent sells firewood. Others sells coffee pots and portable chimneys, for the fire pit is central to every camp at the festival.

There are Syrian shawarma cafes blasting music, an Egyptian bakery and tents offering home-cooked meals prepared by women in Madinat Zayed.

Businessman Hussein Keshveri had such success with a pop-up baqala in 2018 that he returned this year to open Jaguar Smoking Supplies, confident it would be one-of-a-kind at the festival. It is a tented replica of a shisha and midwakh pipe shop he opened 24 years ago in Madinat Zayed.

“There are supermarkets, gold jewellers, restaurants, everything was sold here,” said Mr Keshveri. “Except this. This is something new.”

A days later, a rival shisha shop opened in a tent across the road. Money at a camel festival moves quickly and business ideas do too.