This Capital Celebrates Culture With a Camel Show

Beyond the awards, it’s about honoring cultural heritage.

Camels in Arabia.

(Bojan Milinkov /

In a desert area 75 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a very special beauty contest takes place. Thousands of female entrants arrive at the Al Dhafra Festival to compete for the title of the most beautiful. The standards are very high, according to the ideal that Mohammed al-Muhari, one of the organizers, shared with news agency the Associated Press (AP). Participants are expected to walk tall and adopt an elegant posture, present long and slim necks, plump cheeks, and broad lips. 

More than meets the eye
In this unique contest though, the participants are not humans but camels from across the region. And the pageant is not just about looks. Not even just about the cash — although the winners receive generous monetary prizes. It is mostly about tradition and cultural pride.

The goals of the Al Dhafra Festival, launched by the government in 2008, are to celebrate Bedouin tradition, boost tourism and preserve some camel breeds, The New York Times explains. So even when the 40 thousand participating camels are there to be judged on their beauty, deep down, the idea is to honor and recognize them as a symbol and an integral part of Emirati identity.

Going back to their roots
The need to revive past customs like this, is actually a response to the fast-paced modernization that has swept through the UAE due to oil wealth and global business, as the AP details. Where once there were Bedouins and camels, now there are imposing skyscrapers and luxurious hotels, clear symbols of economic and technological growth. 

In addition, foreign residents outnumber locals by nearly nine to one, the same publication reveals. The reason is not unilateral: according to Global Media Insight, a digital agency in the Middle East, the new incoming population can be explained by job opportunities, liberal tax policies, the allure of local beaches and the existence of a ministry for happiness and wellbeing. 

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Many young Emiratis are experiencing an identity crisis that finds answers in their historical roots. “Younger Emiratis who have identity issues are going back to their heritage to find a sense of belonging,” as Rima Sabban, a sociologist at Zayed University in Dubai, told AP. “The society developed and modernized so fast it created a crisis inside.”

Tradition versus modernity 
The camel event attracts visitors coming for the contest itself, but also due to its presentation of  diverse expressions of Bedouin culture. The open-air market, with its tents and food trucks, its colorful carpets, and traditional garments, and the concluding celebrations featuring traditional music and  dance, create a one-of-a-kind experience for live and virtual visitors. 

The traditional initiative is becoming unexpectedly popular beyond the region thanks to some young Emiratis sharing the event with their thousands of Instagram followers. These “camel influencers” are just an example of how the old and the new are coming together to build a contemporary local identity that worships its roots while embracing the future. 

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