It was a beauty contest with a difference. The contestants swayed down the sandy terrain in measured steps – fluttering their beautiful long eyelashes, their pouts perfectly in place, flaunting the best of traditional accessories even as their expressions varied from beatific, dreamy, curious and taut. The difference? The mighty tall models were but camels – the al-Wadah white camel, the al-Majahateer dark yellow camel, the al-Homor reddish-brown camel and scores of other one-humped beauties – looking dapper with their bushy eyebrows and thick feet pads. Some measured over 7 feet at the hump, some touched 1,700 lbs on the scale!
To be adjudged worthy of the ‘Miss Camel’ title and prize money of over $31 million was hardly a cake walk though. Consider the stringent beauty parameters a camel must excel in – the size of the head, length of the neck, whether or not the lips cover the teeth, the shape and size of the hump, the size of its eyes, how long the lashes are, the drop of the nose and the way the ears stand back. The scrutiny of the 50-judge panel was, least said, intense. Some of the competitors reportedly even got disqualified for their silicone-injected fake lips and dyed hair.
The beauty contest was part of the month-long King Abdulaziz camel festival held recently at Al Sayaheed, a small village in the Rumah governorate, about 120 kilometres north-east of Saudi Arabia’s capital city Riyadh. More than 50,000 camels participated in the annual festival which has been part of the Arabian landscape since 1999. The event drew over 35,000 visitors from around the world this year with special visas on arrival being issued on the festival’s website itself. Organised by King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, it is the largest of its kind in the region where the visitors also come to exhibit, trade and auction their camels. Depending on the breed and kind, camels can go under the hammer for anything between $15,000-270,000 at the auction. Professional advice on camel care and riding techniques, poetry competitions, dance contest for children dressed as camels, camel jewellery competition, a photography and painting competition, and an exhibition on the role of camels in Saudi history and culture were just few of the other events that happened on the side lines.
Hoyair, the new interactive cartoon camel character introduced in the festival this year is mention worthy. The honest, respected, loyal, funny and humble character is akin to the virtues displayed by a real camel. As the popularity of the festival escalates, Hoyair will draw in the younger generation and help them bond with the country’s rich heritage and culture.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who presided over the closing ceremony of the festival, also launched the Saudi Village for Camels project. Amongst other attractions, the project will include a camel market, camel trail, pavilion for visitors, auction area, camel hospital, media centre, support service camps, and a centre for camel research that will undertake scientific studies of camel milk and its benefits.
The small village of Al Sayaheed, which may soon emerge as the camel capital of the world, has a unique history and heritage of its own. It served as the base for the camel-mounted followers of Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdulaziz during his campaign to unify the country nearly 85 years ago. Earlier still, it served as the assembly point for camel caravans converging from different regions in the Arabian Peninsula to trade in goods and animals. The village has now been designated as the permanent address for the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival. The heritage festival itself has earned a new slogan – ‘Camels are Civilization.’
A separate two-week event, the Al Janadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival, is also held each year at King Fahd International Stadium to celebrate the traditional desert sport of Bedouin tribes – camel racing. These initiatives, patronised by the Saudi royal family, reflects how Saudi Arabia strives to preserve its historical and cultural legacy associated with the Arabian camels, also called Dromedaries. The camel is in fact much revered in Islam and references of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) famous camel Al Qaswa can even be found even in the Quran. ‘Vision 2030’, Saudi Arabia’s blueprint document of its goals states – “Our land was, and continues to be, known for its ancient civilizations and trade routes at the crossroads of global trade. This heritage has given our society the cultural richness and diversity it is known for today. We recognize the importance of preserving this sophisticated heritage in order to promote national unity and consolidate true Islamic and Arab values. We will endeavour to strengthen, preserve and highlight our national identity so that it can guide the lives of future generations…”
The camel, the ‘ship of the desert’, is a wonderful creature, no less. Camels can easily store up to 80 pounds of fat in their hump and break it down into water and energy when needed. They rarely sweat and can effortlessly clock in up to 100 desert miles without water. They are also capable of drinking like a fish – lapping up gallons of water within a few minutes. Quite the reason why the 1.4 million dromedaries in the Kingdom continue to occupy the attention of researchers. In the past different breeds of Arabian camels in the western region of Saudi Arabia were identified by recording their biometry as well as the surface ultrastructure of cuticular scales. More recently, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), a scientific government institution, successfully decoded the Arabian Camel Genome. Even at the Camel competition, a microchip is inserted into each camel to track them to collect research data.
Camels aren’t just ships of the desert. In the Gulf region, they are equally prized for their meat and milk. The latter is not only rich in skin-friendly alpha-hydroxy acids but also boasts of three times as much vitamin C as cow’s milk! The demand for camel milk has been steadily growing in Saudi Arabia’s urban quarters, with the average per capita consumption pegged at about 33 litres annually, leading to a rise in the number of camel dairy farms. A variety of products made from camel milk are also quite popular – there are soaps, camel milk chocolates, camel lip balms and many more.
Interestingly, despite a booming luxury car market that sees Saudi Arabia importing 600,000 cars worth more than $20 billion each year, the country’s love for the ship of the desert is fascinating indeed. Consider this: Engineers at global auto major Nissan Motors recently took a cue from the mighty conqueror of dunes to arrive at “Desert Camel Power”, a scientifically proven formula to determine the performance of a vehicle in typical desert off-road conditions. Move over horsepower!