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Head turners of the desert: A camel beauty pageant in the UAE

From John Defterios, CNN
updated 11:51 PM EST, Thu March 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Al-Dhafra Camel Festival features a beauty contest for purebred camels
  • The animals are rated on criteria including posture, neck length and ear firmness
  • The event is intended to preserve aspects of Bedouin cultural heritage
  • It draws camel owners from many other countries throughout the region

Western Region, Abu Dhabi (CNN) -- A dusty track in the remote western region of the United Arab Emirates is one of the last places you'd expect to find a beauty pageant.

But the leggy, doe-eyed lovelies on parade here are of the four-legged variety.

The Al-Dhafra Camel Festival is a celebration of the ancient bond between humans and the "ships of the desert," which have traditionally provided Bedouins with food, clothing and transportation.

The highlight of the event, which draws more than 1,500 camel owners and 25,000 camels from all over the Arabian Peninsula to Al-Dhafra, about 150km west of Abu Dhabi, is the camel beauty contest.

The Al-Dhafra Camel Festival in the western region of the United Arab Emirates is a celebration of the ancient bond between humans and the "ships of the desert." The Al-Dhafra Camel Festival in the western region of the United Arab Emirates is a celebration of the ancient bond between humans and the "ships of the desert."
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The UAE\'s camel beauty pageant The UAE's camel beauty pageant

The judges in this high-stakes contest rate the animals -- the females of which are considered better looking -- on criteria including firmness of ear, straightness of leg and the size of their toe cleft.

"The big size of the bones, the big foot, the height of the camel, the neck," explains Shakhboot Al-Dosari, one of the judges, listing the most desirable attributes. "The smoother the neck the better, the longer the neck the better."

It's a competition between tribes. I want the best camel to be owned by me.
Nasser Al-Hajri, Saudi oil contractor and camel owner

It's a job he takes seriously, as the spoils of victory can be significant.

The festival is an important auction market for purebred camels, and as well as commanding high prices, award-winning specimens can confer immense prestige on their owners.

Read also: Stopping sexual assault in Cairo's Tahrir Square

Nasser Al-Hajri, a wealthy Saudi oil contractor who has been a devoted collector of the animals for the past decade, is prepared to pay top dollar for the right camel.

"It's a competition between tribes," he explains of the hump-backed status symbols. "I want... the best camel to be owned by me."

He paid nearly $2.5 million for four-year-old Gaooda, voted one of the most beautiful.

"I love it. It is number one here, it is not number two," he says.

The festival's organizers say it is an important way to protect the purebred camel lines of the region -- the light-skinned asayal, and the darker brown majaheem.

More broadly, explains festival director Salem Al Mazrouei, it is also a way of preserving aspects of Bedouin cultural heritage that might otherwise be lost in a rapidly modernizing country.

Read also: Can Iraq's geeks save the country?

According to the rules laid down in the festival program, owners are required to swear religious oaths that the stated age and lineage of their animals is correct.

As well as the beauty contest and auctions, the festival also has contests in traditional pursuits such as camel racing, camel milking, falconry and date packaging. There is also racing of purebred Arabian salukis, the slender sight-hound that is one of the world's most ancient breeds of domesticated dog, as well as handicrafts displays.

While the SUV has replaced the camel as a means of transportation in the modern Emirates, it's clear the animal retains an important place in the nation's heart.

"The camels helped our grandparents in the past," says Al Mazrouei. "Nowadays, we would like to give back to the camels and to absorb our culture."

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