Obaid Al Mansouri points to a spot just above his right ankle as he remembers an old scorpion bite. He was a young boy when it happened and his father quickly made a small cut just above the bite and sucked out the poisoned blood. To this day, Obaid carries a razor blade with him anytime he goes to the desert.
‘Last night could have been worse,’ he says.
‘It was a beautiful, cold night and I slept outdoors, by the fire. When I woke up in the morning I found a snake curled against my back, under the blanket. It’s very rare to see snakes and scorpions in the winter, as they mostly stay underground, but this one was probably attracted by the heat. In winter months, the desert sand is cold on the surface but warm underground, while in summer it’s cooler underground and hot on surface – and snakes love the heat’.
Born and raised in Liwa, Obaid may have an office job in Abu Dhabi these days, but he has remained a Bedouin at heart and in habit. He has 120 camels in his farm in Liwa and, for as long as the cold weather lasts, he spends most of his free time there, with them.
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He has a house, too, on his family land in Liwa, but he and his friends and relatives prefer sitting – and often sleeping, too – in the large open tent Obaid sets up every winter behind his farm. Night after night, around the fire pit, the conversation always turns towards camels. Although it finished in the last days of December 2017, the news from Al Dhafra Festival, the annual camel beauty competition and celebration of Bedouin traditions in nearby Madinat Zayed, is still the hot topic.
‘During this last festival there was one camel that sold for Dh7 million,’ says Obaid.
This may be a jaw-dropping figure, but not as high as the Dh10 million paid at Al Dhafra Festival in 2008, by Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. That was not just UAE record, but the world’s most expensive camel.
‘This kind of money paid for one camel is rare. Usually, camels that win beauty competitions double, even triple in price, selling for anything between one and four million dirhams. Still, it goes to show that camels are a good business, although a true Bedouin never see camels as business,’ Obaid adds.
Saif Al Mazrouei, from Madinat Zayed, could not agree more. He was born sometime in the 1930s, in the desert, and grew up with camels. Most Bedouin families would only own two, at most three camels, and that’s because they were free-grazing animals and in the desert there aren’t enough plants in any one place for big herds to feed on.
Back then, people didn’t breed camels for racing or beauty competitions. Sure, there were camel races occasionally, but for fun, not for big cash.
‘I’ve been keeping camels for over 40 years. In my day, we would keep camels mainly for milk and, of course, for transport. Very rarely we would sacrifice a camel for its meat; only at big celebrations or if we had very important guests. Now my sons take care of the camels. We have about 300 camels for breeding and 40 for racing,’ says Saif.
Camels can race from age two until 11, even 12 years old, then they are used for breeding. In the UAE, Asayel is the main purebred camel. It is the golden-brown camel that originally comes from southern Oman. Bedouin connoisseurs can easily spot a multi-million Asayel camel. It has to have the right proportions, long legs and big feet, a dropped-down nose and lower lip, big, thick eyelashes, a fit body and soft dark hair on its hump; it is kept so by avoiding exposing the camel to too much sunshine.
First camel racing and then camel beauty competitions were introduced by authorities in the UAE, not only to preserve old desert traditions, but also to encourage better care for these animals and offer financial incentives for camel owners.
To this day, the 11-year-old Al Dhafra Festival remains the most valuable in terms of awards. The flagship of the event is the Bayraq – the best group of 50 camels – competition, which awards Dh1 million to the first winners of each Asayel and Majahim camel categories. Yet, the prize is symbolic, as a herd of 50 best-looking camels is worth around Dh20 million. According to camel owners, it is the expense of breeding camels that drive these kinds of prices.
‘Breeding competition-winning camels is not cheap. We spend up to Dh12,000 per month for one camel only – and that’s only for food. Apart from high-quality fresh grass, we feed it milk, honey and olive oil,’ reveals Saif.
‘We also take the camels regularly on long walks and we wash them twice a week with horse shampoo – there is no camel shampoo – to keep their body fit and hair soft. Add to this the cost of veterinary check-ups and the salaries of the farm employees. So you see, the price of pedigree camels is very high because the cost of keeping them is high’.
His investment paid off as his camels won first place nine years in a row at Al Dhafra Festival. Saif and his family never miss the festival, as it is considered, throughout the Gulf Bedouin world, as one of the biggest markets for high-end pedigree camels; Shaikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in the Al Dhafra Region of the Abu Dhabi emirate, gave his family a plot on the desert grounds of the festival, stretching for at least 15 square kilometres beyond Madinat Zayed, where he built a small camel farm.
Every year, Saif and his family bring their best camels here to enter one of the camel mazayna (beauty) competitions. They join hundreds of other camel owners who come from all over the Gulf and camp here throughout the festival.
It is here that the most and the largest camel deals of the year take place. On the festival’s Million Street, a sandy dirt road named after the multi-million-dirham camel sales that take place along it, there are daily camel parades. Last December there were 82 camel beauty competitions (with prizes exceeding Dh30 million) and the day before each competition, participants took their tiara contenders for a walk on Million Street.
The small herds were accompanied by their owners driving around them and stopping in key locations, where they sang and danced around the camels or recited poetry dedicated to the beauty of their camels. All this was done to attract the attention of potential buyers, who either made offers on the spot or noted the names of the owners, to contact them at a later date.
Mohammad Saeed Al Mahri and 10 of his best camels spent 10 days on the road to get to Al Dhafra from Salalah in Oman. Back home, he has over 100 camels that earn him his daily bread. Times are tougher now, as more people can afford to keep camels due to massive economic development in the past few decades, but it is still possible to earn a living from keeping camels.
‘Camels are still a good business. We don’t breed racing camels, only milk ones. Majahim, the black Saudi purebred, is best for milk; it can give 10 litres of milk in one milking session,’ he says.
‘Camel festivals are ideal to develop relationships and find new buyers. Plus, it’s a good opportunity for people to buy camel milk from our Dhofar region, which is special. Because of the monsoon, Salalah gets lush green vegetation, which is better for camel feeding’.
Mohammad regularly travels to Abu Dhabi to sell his camel milk to his regular customers and look for new ones. The Dhofar region alone has over 400,000 camels and it is becoming increasingly tough to make an income as a camel farmer; a lot more people from this region are searching for new markets.
His Emirati friend, Mubarak Al Mazrouei, points out that most camel owners today make their money from other businesses and jobs, but keep camels simply because they love them. The desert animal, praised in the Quran and a fundamental part of Bedouin poetry, has always been at the centre of the Arab way of life.
‘The camel is always beautiful in the eyes of the Bedouin and he would never tire of showing his affection for the camel,’ says Mubarak.
‘For hours, my father can go on reciting poetry about camels, which he learnt from his father or he composed himself while sitting under the stars, in the desert’.
‘O, rider of a pure, unmixed, well-chosen mount, perfect of limb and with sires beyond count...’ murmurs Mubarak as he remembers an old poem describing the beauty of a camel.