Before oil, Bedouin people used to depend on camels for milk, meat, transportation and even currency; there was nothing without camels.
The Camel Beauty Contest, part of the Al Dhafra Festival, is held annually in the United Arab Emirates in the desert about two hours west of Abu Dhabi. The Camel Beauty Contest is a tribute to the animal, which contributed to development of the local economy, before oil; but the Al Dafra Festival offers more than camels. There is a traditional souk with handicrafts and the freshest dates you will ever find, a camel cuisine contest, camel races, poetry and a camel milking contest. The festival is supported by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which seeks to preserve aspects of traditional culture.
It is the rare opportunity to observe and participate in Bedouin life that makes the Al Dafra Festival well worth a visit. Looking out across the desert from the grandstand, the dunes appear to be dotted with mini-circuses. At the family compounds, the legendary Arab hospitality operates in full force. Anyone is welcome any time, whether to dance at a post-victory celebration (traditional dances for men only), or simply to sit around the fire sipping tea or Arabic coffee. One qualification: The women of the families stay in separate areas and are nowhere to be seen; western women seem to be in a separate category, and are welcome.
A two-week extravaganza, complete with insider trading (of camels), 11th-hour dealing (camels again), and millions of dollars and hundreds of vehicles in prizes: the Camel Beauty Contest offers a fascinating glimpse of Bedouin.
The actual competitions has many categories including “father and daughter”, “best bred” and the vaunted “50” (the top prize awarded for having the most outstanding group of 50 camels); every category is divided into two types of camels:
- Asayal, the familiar tan breed that originates from Oman and the Emirati
- Majaheem, a darker, almost black breed from KSA.
Decisions are made by seven judges, who scrutinize each camel before retiring to the Majlis (sitting space) to confer.
There they tally the scores, dividing the animal’s body into four parts and using a special program developed by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.
The wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the scenes adds suspense to the competition. To win the “50,” the lead competitors buy camels to improve their standing right up to the moment the camels enter the grandstand viewing area. But it takes a sharp-eyed camel fans to sniff out the deals.
The winner of the “50” in the Majaheem (black camel) category in the 2012 edition, al-Falahi spent tens of millions of dollars buying new camels during the course of the festival.
The victory parades and parties of music, dancing and food that follow a victory make for incredible celebrations. After the “50,” a joyous and slightly terrifying procession of about 100 sport-utility vehicles doing wheelies and careening around the dunes, accompanying 100 camels walking in a much more dignified fashion along the road, led the way back to the al-Falahi compound. If alcohol were a factor, it would have been a death march, but since the strong drink of choice is warm camel milk, the only damage was a few vehicles stuck in the sand.