Obaid Al Mansouri is sitting on the cushions near the fire pit, remembering a story from his childhood. It was a cold night like this one, in a camp out in the desert, when all of a sudden his father started reciting a poem; they were improvised verses about being in love.
‘I was really worried. I thought my father was going to marry another woman and leave my mother’, he says.
‘I was only 6 years old then.’
Obaid is now in his 50s and still spends as much time as he can out in the desert and on his camel farm. His family is from Abu Dhabi, but when the government banned camel farms in the city, he and his wife moved to Ghayathi, in the Al Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi emirate. There they keep about 80 camels. He brought the 20 best-looking ones to the Al Dhafra Festival, which took place near Madinat Zayed last December.
Dubbed the biggest Bedouin gathering on the planet – about 1,500 camel owners and 20,000 camels were there – the festival is as much about celebrating the UAE’s desert traditions as it is about boosting local income. Every year, there are all manner of heritage-related competitions, shows, and activities, but the camel mazayna (beauty contest) remains at the heart of the festival. Last year alone there were 82 camel beauty competitions, with AED 35 million in cash and Nissan Patrols awarded to winners.
I first met Obaid two years ago at the festival, and as soon as he spotted me, he invited me to visit his camp.
‘I must be here every winter’, he says.
‘Al Dhafra Festival is still the largest and most important event for camel owners in the region.
‘Winning a camel beauty competition instantly doubles, even triples, the value of the winning camel. Two years ago, when my camel won third place, I got offers of AED 800,000 for it. Before the competition, I would have sold it for AED 300,000.’
Pointing towards the hundreds of camps spread over the vast desert, Obaid says no camel owner from the Gulf would miss the festival. It‘s too good of a business opportunity. Even people who don‘t enter the camel mazayna come here. Most are looking to buy or sell camels.
“It’s the look of the camel, also the pedigree, the lineage of the camel, that give such expensive camels their value. Famous camels are well known all over the Gulf”
‘It‘s not just about winning competitions. It‘s about meeting a lot of like-minded people, exchanging news and information about camels – how‘s the market, who‘s buying, new medicine, and so on’, claims Obaid.
Every year, hundreds of people travel to the Al Dhafra Festival from as far as Oman or Saudi Arabia, bringing along their best herd in the hope of winning big and gaining new customers.
Rashed Al Mansouri grew up with camels, and he is now working with the camels of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who this year won the AED 1,000,000 Bayraq (best group of 50 camels) competition.
‘Camels are a good business. People are buying them for one million dirham and sell them for three, four, or five million. It’s the look of the camel, also the pedigree, the lineage of the camel, that give such expensive camels their value. Famous camels are well known all over the Gulf’, he says.
‘There are also camel competitions. People are certain a camel is worth its money if it won or even participated in beauty competitions. When the media or just people talk about camels that were seen in competitions, a lot of buyers will get to hear about them, and they will bid for these camels. Such a camel, worth AED 500,000 to AED one million, will draw offers of two, even three million because everyone competes to buy it’.
Back in the pre-oil days, camels were far more a necessity than a business. Bedouin families needed them to travel through the desert, in constant search for food and water. Camel milk was a big part of people’s diets. Only on special occasions, at weddings, Eid, or during the visit of important guests, would a camel be sacrificed for its meat.
Saif Hamad Al Mazrouei remembers these days all too well. Now in his 80s, he was born in the desert, near Madinat Zayed. All his life has been about camels. He learnt and perfected camel breeding, a knowledge and passion he passed down to his sons.
‘In my days, there were no beauty competitions or racing. Sure, sometimes we would race our camels but not for money, like now. It was mainly for fun’, he says.
‘Also, we couldn‘t keep many camels back then. It was too expensive to buy food for them, and the desert didn‘t have enough vegetation for a lot of camels to graze on at one time. Most families would have three to five camels.’
Yet, camels have turned out to be a very good business for him and his sons. The family owns 300 camels on their farm in Madinat Zayed. They also have 40 racing camels near Al Wathba, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.
‘We come to the Al Dhafra Festival every year. We won first place nine times in a row in camel mazayna competitions’, points out Sultan, Saif’s son, adding that their winning camels go on fetching anything between AED one and three million.
‘We never buy camels. We breed our own. We also don‘t go out selling them. If we did that, the offers would be too low. We wait for buyers to come to us and make offers’, explains Sultan.
Selling a camel for AED one or two million may sound like a lot, but not when you spend AED 3.5 million yearly on food.
‘Keeping pedigree camels is very expensive. We spend AED 12,000 per year per camel on food alone. To have a competition-winning camel, you need to feed it a diet of milk, honey, and olive oil as well as grass. We also give them regular baths, and there is also the cost of medicine and medical treatment. Racing camels cost even more, as they also require training’, says Sultan.
For Sultan and his family, the camel business has never been about profit though but about the lifestyle.
Silvia Radan is a British writer and editor based in Al Ain, UAE.