Camels, the ungainly ships of the desert, have been part of the history and folklore of Arabian culture for centuries. They’ve inspired poetry and song, served as transportation and racing companions, and have been a source of milk and meat for nomadic travelers.
In the United Arab Emirates, the government has made preserving the camel’s role in its heritage a priority in a country where oil wealth has fueled a modern skyline, a booming economy and an enduring way of life. Cuisine based on camel meat has evolved, and as The New York Times reported, it has found its way into the modern fusion scene in the region.
But as cosmopolitan city life increasingly overshadow traditional desert life, one festival aims to preserve tradition and introduce U.A.E. youths to their heritage. The Sultan Bin Zayed Heritage Festival, a two-week event about 60 miles outside Abu Dhabi, celebrates camels in all their unwieldy glory.
The festivities feature handicrafts, a heritage village, camel beauty contests and camel races on the Sweihan racecourse.
Camel racing has undergone a transformation in the Gulf countries, particularly after an outcry over the use of child jockeys. In the U.A.E., a federation of seven principalities, camel racing became more organized in the 1990s. The country had been using child jockeys, some as young as 2 or 3, and importing them from nations like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan.
But a scandal over the abuses of boy jockeys helped end the practice. In 2002, a royal decree in the U.A.E. banned camel owners from using children under the age of 15. As the legislation went into effect in 2005, the U.A.E. signed a $7 million agreement with Unicef to help repatriate the children.
After the U.A.E. ban, a new industry developed: small, specially designed robots made to resemble the child riders and outfitted with silks and fake helmets. They are affixed to the backs of the camels, and camel owners and trainers with remote controls would race in their luxury cars alongside the robot riders on the track.
A New York Times reporter watched one such race firsthand, in which the camel’s handler, driving alongside the animal, clucked softly into a walkie-talkie that transmitted information to the mounted robot to make the camel run faster.
The Sultan Bin Zayed event showcases one of the few prominent camel races in the region that still uses human jockeys, according to an Agence France-Presse report. The U.A.E. legislation in 2005 said the authorities would enforce the age restrictions by comparing birth certificates and performing a medical exam.
Camel owners pay tens of thousands of dollars to breed and raise their animals, preserving bloodlines and honing their conformation — their shape, balance and structure — through the generations.
The festival, which began last month, ends this week. In the camel beauty contest, contestants were divided into seven categories, including the “two-year-old virgin female camels,” “pregnant female camels about to give birth,” and “five-year-old (and above) male camels.
Jurors base their scores on the shape of the camels’ head, neck, hump and posture. Eyelash length and the sheen of the camels’ hair also factor into the marks. When one winner was picked, the animal was dusted in a cloud of saffron.