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  • Writer's pictureLiz Totton

The Road to the Camel Beauty Pageant, Part ٢

Emirati Guide, Al Dhafra Camel Beauty Pageant

Said, our Emirati Guide

ّIn The Road to the Camel Beauty Pageant, Part ١, I wrote about getting to the pageant, Part ٢ is about the pageant itself. Here goes… 

Said, our Emirati guide, escorted us down to the pens. As we neared the camels, we noticed there were several other foreign women down there, along with a lot of media. The camel paparazzi were in full swing. Even though the arena and all its pens were dusty and dirty, the air was rife with excitement. The trainers paraded their finest animals for all the viewers to admire. Middle Eastern music boomed from the tall speakers on all sides and faint puffs of incense wafted through the air. This was the first time since we had landed in the U.A.E. that I really felt as though we were in the middle of the desert. We have, in all actuality, been there all along, but this really felt like it. It’s very easy in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to feel as though we are in the west. After all, you hear English spoken everywhere, see a KFC or McDonald’s on every block and never, ever see camel. Madinat Zayed embodied the Middle Eastern aura that I had dreamt about.

Back to the camels… Said paraded us from pen to pen. I really did not know that they came in so many variations of color and size before the beauty pageant. Let me reiterate that I really did not know a thing about Camels, but I relish and support any effort, anywhere to venerate animals in any way possible. Camels come in Blonde, Blackish-brown and even White colors. The Blackish-Brown camels clean up every year in the pageant, according to Said. Camel beauty pageants mirror human ones in many ways; the only difference I saw is that blondes are relegated to second fiddle in the camel world. They are fine-looking animals, but, when you get up close, the difference between the Blackish Brown ones and the Blondes is akin to comparing an Arabian stallion to a donkey. I am sure this is a matter of opinion, but I understood what he was saying. I learned later that there were two competitions: one for the light-colored “Asayel” breed and another for the dark-skinned “Majahim.” That seemed more fair, given their size differences.

One thing we were all struck by was how affectionate and curious the camels were towards humans. These were clearly well loved animals. It is such a contrast to the way many other animals are treated here and in neighboring countries. Let’s just say camels are man’s best friend here–maybe not cats and dogs. Of course, we are talking about the camel beauty queens here. It’s likely that the less attractive and competitive ones are not pampered like this. But, that is the subject for another blog. In the meantime, let’s keep talking about the contestants and the pageant itself.

Camel teeth

Camel Teeth!

Said then guided us towards the pens housing the larger Brownish, Black camels. They were really majestic animals, larger than horses with shiny coats that were a rich-looking cocoa brown. I was smitten with these brownish black camels. Last year, the owner of the winner apparently was offered an amount upwards of $25 million US for his beauty queen, and he declined; he was not willing to part with his camel. There is unique bond between these camels and humans. We were initially a bit wary of getting too close to the camels. After all, he did just show us their teeth, which looked like they could feast on a human hand in one gulp. “Ha Ha. Don’t worry they are vegetarians. They eat just grass—not people,” Said laughed as he proceeded to put his whole hand into the camel’s mouth. He insisted we get closer to the camels and not be afraid. He reminded us that they are just curious. They want to be near humans–that was no lie. It you stood within their long neck’s reach, they would encroach into your space in a very flagrant effort to make you adore them, even if you are not a “camel person,” like me.

I was won over after watching a camel nuzzle my mother’s ear with such affection. My mother grew up with horses, so she is no stranger to an animal this large. The beauty queen nibbled her ear and rubbed her face. My mother quipped about how the camel must love her white hair, but what the camel loved was the unambiguous affection that my mother has for all animals. She is calm with all animals big and small, and they see her as no sort of threat. It might sound a little gross, especially with tales of a “camel flu” circulating, but it was really no different to snuggling a dog or cat. They are just bigger and, believe it or not, probably more determined than any dog to be your best friend and companion. Who could eschew this loving beast, you might wonder? My husband and youngest daughter that’s who! Husband remained skeptical about offering his ear to the beauty queen despite her camely wiles, and my youngest reluctantly offered her hand. My oldest is an intrepid animal lover, like her mother and grandmother.

We also learned that there are thousands upon thousands of words in the Arabic language pertaining to camels. This is one of the most interesting aspects of language to me: what they leave in and what they leave out. If you are curious, please visit the site Arabglot for more information. 

How to judge a camel beauty pageant

How to judge a camel beauty pageant

How on earth are camels judged in a Beauty Pageant you may wonder? I did too. Everyone was quick to offer the 100-point judging system to us (below). Again, it is an awful lot like human pageants, and many virtues prized in human being beauty pageants are dually prized in those for camels, such as long necks and legs, shiny hair, long eyelashes, fitness, demeanor, shapely humps—did I just write that?! Yes, I believe I did. We watched Camel experts—all men dressed in traditional grab– circle the camel beauty queens. They eyed their every movement and feature judging them, not only on their attractive features, but also based on how they comported themselves. All that was missing was the testimonial part where the beauty queen gets up and tells the audience her hopes and dreams. They whacked them a bit with a stick, which I hated, but I guess they couldn’t just tell the camel to turn around and show them her rear, so they can judge it, right? This was about the only part of the pageant that I found distasteful, but–even with mild abuse–the judging felt so much less exploitative than it does in human beauty pageant world, I could get past it.  This is the 100-point judging system that they use: 


  1. Head and neck – 25 points awarded for large head, firm ears, long whiskers, shapely nose and lips, long neck

  2. Upper body – 20 points awarded for large, shapely hump

  3. Front – 15 points awarded for wide neck, strong shoulders, good feet

  4. Rear – 10 points awarded for straight, strong legs

  5. General appearance – 30 points awarded for shiny hair, overall health and fitness, space between toes

Source: Mohammed Abdullah al-Mehairi

After a morning of touring camels of all shapes, sizes, hair colors and personalities, I think we could spot a winner or, at least, a runner up out of a line up. I am not sure I could do this with humans. We did not stick around for the part where they announce the winner—the judging lasts into the evening. When they announce the winner, there are apparently great celebrations. The winning families shoot into the air, shout their tribal calls and dance. They also get a boatload of money.

Camels being judged

Camels Being Judged and Whacked with Sticks.

Riding Camels is Fun & Easy!

Riding Camels is Fun & Easy!

Said and I could have walked pen to pen, adoring each and every camel beauty queen there, but not everyone else. They were more of the “once you’ve seen one camel, you’ve seen them all” mindset. Said and I were outnumbered 4 to 2, so we moved on. “Who would like to ride a camel?” Said asked the girls with great enthusiasm. “Me!” My hand shot up like a second grader. Said looked back to the girls, ignoring my desperate desire to be first. In retrospect, I see that it was the right thing to do, and I reluctantly let them go first. He led us to the camel-riding arena. Two far less kempt, blonde camels sat listlessly on their knees just waiting. There were no paparazzi, judges, or admiring fans over here—just us. A helper came right over to the girls and suited them up in proper riding gear, while Said attended to the bored looking camels. These two were no beauty queens; they were working girls, but Said did not treat them with any less attention or admiration. This dude just loves camels! Another Arabic coffee boy came around with more small cups of that delicious cardamom brew for our camelride-viewing pleasure. He, too, stood at our side to be absolutely certain that our small cups remained bottomless; topping us off when the coffee dipped below half full. Said helped the girls up onto their humps. Yes, you do seem to sit right on the hump, but it’s well padded to make the back level. It’s a surprisingly comfortable ride, except for coming down—that requires some practice and a healthy back.

Decameling is neither Fun nor Easy!

Decameling is Neither Fun Nor Easy!

The camels really strain pushing up the weight of their human load so getting up is not very fast, but when it’s time to get down, hold your camels, girls! This can get bumpy, and it did! If you were in the USA, there would be a sign that read something like this: “If you have any back problems, please consult a physician before riding this camel,” you know the one! Nope. No sign there. When de-camelling, the camels drop onto their front knees in one very fast motion, and you are  thrust forward at breakneck speed.

Me & Camelride

Lizzy of Arabia Rides a Camel!

Just as you catch your breath, BOOM! Their lower legs drop the ground thrusting you in the other direction, just as swiftly. I held on for dear life, just certain that I would get thrown forward, break my brain, and OH HOW I would regret this impulsive decision to ride a camel. I was shaken but unhurt. Having said that, my mother rode one. She’s 74 and in reasonably good health, and she was all right.

It was getting to be early afternoon, and everyone was starving. We thanked Said and asked him if there were a place to have an authentic Arabic meal here at the festival. He directed us to a Middle Eastern buffet at the Tilal Liwa Hotel. You could see it just over the dunes. It looked like a desert fortress. The air was dense with sand, so we could not see it well, but knew that was where we should head to complete this desert experience in style.

Emirati tour guide

Thank you, Said!

We were so grateful to have such a friendly guide as Said. We have not had the good fortune to meet many Emirati people in the brief time we have been in the U.A.E. We were thrilled and thankful to hear his stories, learn about his country’s history from his perspective and to be taught about camels from someone as knowledgeable about them as he.  We vowed to make a weekend of it next year and to be certain to stay the whole day of the festival until they announce the winner. The Al Dhafra Camel Festival is not to be missed, if you want get out of the soulless cities and experience the real history and substance of the United Arab Emirates.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube video of the festival and some Camel Facts. To get a sense of the atmosphere, please click here: 

Interesting Camel Facts

  1. They never forget where they were born or reared; they can easily find their way back to the same place.

  2. A young camel is able to find its way back the last place it fed on its mother’s milk or its owner’s house when estranged from the herd.

  3. Camels have an amazing ability to search of place of water or rainfall and grassland due to their extraordinary sense of smell.

  4. Camels can differentiate between sounds in precise detail and can recognize its owner’s voice.

  5. When walking, the camel lifts both its front and back right legs at the same time and then the left side afterwards to maintain balance- this feat is not performed by any other animal.

  6. Camels can swim.

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