Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How to Judge a Camel Beauty Contest

Note to readers: This is the final blog of a three part series about our adventure to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival. Top 10 Tips for Enjoying the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, Camel Bling-Bling and How to Judge a Camel Beauty Contest
An Arabian Asayles Beauty Queen.
The first time I heard about a Camel Beauty Contest I laughed. I had no idea these goofy-looking beasts with the big hump had a lot in common with very valuable majestic thoroughbred horses. I learned at the camel festival that a camel’s value, performance and beauty, just like a thoroughbred’s, are determined by their skeletal structure, the sleekness of their coat and the all-important pedigree. Both can cost an absolute fortune.

There is a disparaging saying, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee” because its parts don’t go together. But, I tell you that after our forays into camel festival beauty contests, I believe that a camel is far more complex and has a beauty all-to-its own that can rival a thoroughbred any day. 

Now that Roger and I are semi-pros on the camel festival circuit, I think it is time to impart what we’ve learned about judging a camel’s beauty. I am certain that newly un-employed American Idol judge Simon Cowell is rolling his eyes and touting that little “I can’t believe I am hearing this” smirk. But just eat your heart out Simon, this is way out of your judging league. 

A bevy of Majaheem beauties strike a pose for the camera.
First of all, a camel beauty contest is called Al Mazayna. Participating camels in the UAE are Arabian dromedaries, which sport one hump, and come in two colors – Asayels (tan), and Majaheems (brownish-black). The Majaheems are from Saudi Arabia and the tan ones are from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.  

That seems simple enough.  

Next, there are the judging points with 100 being the top score.

Camel festival official (on far right) explains the complexities of judging a camel contest.

The head and neck are good for 25 points. Judges are looking for a large proud head with firm ears. Long wispy whiskers expertly groomed are key, as well as a shapely nose and plump pouty lips. No Botox needed here. A long elegant neck is an esteemed asset.

Long wispy whiskers, shapely nose
and plump pouty lips are prized.

Worth 20 points is the quintessential camel hump. It is prized when it is large and curvaceous having its length and width well-proportioned.

Just for your information, a camel’s hump does not store water; it stores up to 80 pounds of fat which can be broken down into water and energy when needed.   

A pair of Asayels glamour girls are “blinged” and ready to strut their stuff.
A well-structured front end – neck shoulder and front feet – is worth 15 points. A beautiful camel will have a prominent neck wide against its strong shoulders and stand tall on its large stately footpads rising to more than seven feet. A camel with slender but muscular straight hind legs can garner up to 10 points. Strangely in a society where by tradition the men and women do not socialize together, in camel beauty contests the male and female compete against each other. But, female beauty contestants are more prevalent than males as they are larger.

Like beauty contestants all over the world,
these rivals jockey for position in front of the cameras showing off their hatat.

The general shape and fitness of the camel is the final category good for 30 points. The camel’s overall health and fitness rate high, the width of the toe parting matters and the silkiness and shine of the coat are all point getters. What the camel is wearing, the loveliness of its hatat – the hump and neck adornments - is a way for the breeder to make his own statement. Camel Bling-Bling is all important.

The classic beauty of these Majaheems surely makes them winners.
So with a 100 point potential score, how many points does it take to win? One of the December 2013 winners captured 96 points to win that competitive lap. Darn near perfect. She/he must have been a “hot-dish!”  

Judging is serious. The Judges are camel experts hand-picked by the authorities and sequestered for the duration of the festival. Millions of dirhams are at stake here so the judges must be most trustworthy.  Each must take a public oath of honesty. While the actual judging is going on, breeders are banned from the arena to insure that the judging is on the up-and-up. They only come back for the announcement of the winners. The breeders of the top 10 finalists in each category must swear on a Quran to the age of thier camel.

OK, now it’s going to get a little crazy.

Contestants for "The Most Beautiful Herd."
There are a total of 70 competitive laps, or brackets, at the Al Dhafra Mazayna from which “the most beautiful are selected according to the highest known authentic standards that guarantee an unrivalled beauty.”  “Competitive laps” are what each of the judging categories are called.

The competitions are divided by breed and age; Sheikhs have their own laps and some laps where others can compete against them; some laps are reserved for tribes; and there are separate laps for locally owned camels. The Asayels and the Majaheems, who do not compete against each other, each have their own set of competitive laps. There is also a field for “The Most Beautiful Herd” -25, 35 and 50 camels-strong all owned by the same breeder. In 2013, the number of winning camels in all positions and categories was whopping 200.

Line-up of SUVs. One of the prizes to be awarded to winning breeders.
The day of competition begins very early with the morning’s contestants gathering in the judging pens in front of the grandstand flanked on the right by the 198 SUVs which are part of the prizes awarded to the winners. Judges enter each owner’s pen to examine the dromedaries in this contest.  Then each competitor is paraded in front of the grandstand to the raucous cheers of its supporters. The winning camels are proudly escorted by their breeders and his friends in a madcap parade down Million Street (see #10 of my Top 10 Tips for the Al Dahfra Camel Festival) .

In case you are wondering, it was 21 years ago that Ramos Salih, a Bedu grandfather, founded and eventually codified camel beauty contests to settle a family rivalry with his father-in-law as to who had the most beautiful camel. Today, the Al Dhafra Camel Festival draws more than 25,000 camels to compete and awards 45 million dirhams ($12,261,580) in prizes. Competitors come from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Jordan and Yemen. Many travel by foot over the desert in caravans. It takes one month for a Saudi Arabian camel caravan to make it to the festival.

Two sexy beauties.  I vote for the one in blue!
Roger and I highly recommend a trek to a camel festival. I know of only two in the UAE. The Al Dhafra Camel Festival that happens the last two weeks of December and the Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed al-Nahyan Camel Festival held at the Sweihan racecourse in Al-Ain on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi held in February. Check out the postscript.

There is a real art to enjoying a camel festival. Before you go to any camel festival you really should read my Top 10 Tips for Enjoying the Al Dhafra Camel Festival.   

Here is a great video on the Al Dhafra Camel Beauty contest from Gulf News:

Photo Gallery . . .

Contest official explains the intricacies of judging a camel beauty contest To the spectators. 
Spectators relax in the bejeweled grandstand between the judging of the competitive laps.
Prizes include cash, a gold trophy and keys to 198 SUVs.

Sometimes a “Beauty Queen” just has to rest her gorgeous legs.

Camel Bling-Bling.
Roger checks out a pouty- lipped belle.
Postscript . . .

Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed al-Nahyan Sweihan Camel Festival .

Wendy, Yvonne and Jani get
up-close-and-personal with a racing camel.
The 2012 Al Dhafra Camel Festival was the first camel festival Roger and I attended. When friends heard me raving about it they decided that a camel festival would be a great girl-friend day outing.  

So early one morning, fortified with a picnic lunch Wendy Mervin, Robin Loving, Jani Diedam and Yvonne Townsend and I headed to the Camel Festival in Sweihan.

To show us around, Yvonne made arrangements with Mohamed Saad Maarout from the Emirates Heritage Club.

Katie congratulates the owner and winning camel.
In the course of that day we saw the judging of a competitive lap, shook hands with Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, listened to a young Emirati serenade the Sheikh with his Nabati Poetry, was entertained by an energetic elderly Bedouin who danced for us, learned how to load a camel into a lorry and I bought an antique oud at the festival's market.

This is the talented dancer
who entertained us with a spontaneous performance
We topped it all off with a picnic lunch in a deserted grandstand and just could not resist having our pictures taken with the Sheikhs!

Katie, Yvonne, Jani, Robin, Wendy and The Sheikhs!

Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomes Katie to the festival.


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