LIWA, United Arab Emirates: Deep in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, the moment the camel herders have been waiting for has arrived.
Families dragged their camels across the sands sculpted by the wind. The waiters poured tiny cups of Arabic coffee. The judges went down to deserted lots.
Only one question hung over the rostrum: which camels were the most beautiful?
Even as the omicron variant tears the world apart, legions of herders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar traveled to the desert of southwestern United Arab Emirates this week with 40 000 of their most beautiful camels for the Al-Dhafra festival.
The five-man jury at the annual competition insists that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. The camel’s aesthetics are evaluated according to specific categories determined generations ago. Only the camels participate because the males fight too much, authorities said.
As hundreds of woolly black camels trotted through the dusty pastures, necks and bumps swaying, one of the organizers, Mohammed Al-Muhari, described the Platonic ideal.
Necks should be long and thin, cheeks wide and hooves wide, he said. The lips must fall. They should walk high with a graceful posture.
“It’s not that different from humans,” Al-Muhari said, her robe sparkling white amid clouds of dust.
The high standards have prompted many breeders to seek an edge, using banned Botox injections to plump up the camel’s lips, muscle relaxers to soften the face, and silicone wax injections to widen the hump.
Festival spokesman Abdel Hadi Saleh declined to say how many attendees were disqualified for plastic surgery this week. All camels undergo rigorous medical examinations for artificial touch-ups and hormones before entering the Al-Dhafra festival. Since Emirati investigators started using x-ray and sonar systems a few years ago, Saleh said the number of cheaters has dropped.
“We catch them easily, and they find that getting caught is not worth the cost to their reputation,” he said.
Much is at stake. The Al-Dhafra Festival is offering the top 10 winners in each category prizes ranging from $ 1,300 to $ 13,600. In the main Saudi contest, the most beautiful brings in $ 66 million. Camels change hands in transactions worth millions of dirhams. But the breeders insist it’s not just about the money.
“It’s a kind of our heritage and customs that (Emirati rulers) have revived,” said Saleh Al-Minhali, 27, a camel owner from Abu Dhabi. He wore designer sunglasses over his traditional headdress and Balenciaga sneakers under his kandura, or Emirati tunic.
Gone are the days when camels were an integral part of daily life in the Federation of Seven Sheikhs, a chapter lost as oil wealth and world affairs transformed Dubai and Abu Dhabi into centers dotted with skyscrapers with marbled malls, luxury hotels and thrilling nightclubs. Foreigners outnumber locals almost nine to one in the country.
However, experts say Emiratis are increasingly looking for meaning in echoes of the past – Bedouin traditions that prevailed before the UAE became a nation 50 years ago. “Young Emiratis who have identity problems are returning to their heritage to regain a sense of belonging,” said Rima Sabban, sociologist at Zayed University in Dubai. “The company has grown and modernized so rapidly that it is creating a crisis within.”
Camels run on old world racetracks in the Emirates and still offer milk, meat and a historic touchstone to citizens. Festivals across the country celebrate the importance of the camel. Al-Dhafra also features falcon races, camel dances and a camel milking competition.
“People in Dubai may not even think about it, but the young people here care deeply about camels,” said Mahmoud Suboh, coordinator of the Liwa Oasis festival at the northern edge of the empty desert district. Since 2008, he’s seen the fairground transform from a remote desert outpost into an extravaganza that draws camel enthusiasts from all over the world.
In a sign of the contest’s explosion in popularity, a dozen young Emirati men who call themselves “camel influencers” filmed and posed with the camels on Wednesday, broadcasting live to thousands of Instagram followers.
Digital tastes have proven to be important this year, as the coronavirus pandemic has reduced tourism to the festival and cooled the mood. Police verified that visitors received both doses of the vaccine and tested negative for the virus. Authorities asked attendees to adjust their face masks, threatening fines. Few foreigners or other spectators wandered around the site on Wednesday.
Each category of the 10-day competition is divided into two types of camels: Mahaliyat, the tanned breed native to the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and Majaheen, the darkest breed from Saudi Arabia. Wednesday’s presentation focused on the five-year-old black Majaheen camels.
For hours, the judges scrutinized each camel, scribbling lists of the animal’s body parts for scoring. The herders were shouting to scare the camels to look up and show elongated necks.
As the sun set over the sand, the winning ranchers were called upon to accept their sparkling trophies. Below, in the rings of earth, the camels were crowned with shawls lined with gold and silver.
“So far, we are the first in the category … We have received more than 40 awards (in various camel competitions) this year alone”, beamed Mohammed Saleh bin Migrin Al-Amri as he juggled with four trophies of the day, including two golds.
Then he jumped into his Toyota Land Cruiser. The victory parade of honking SUVs and growling camels faded behind the desert dunes.