Photo: Camels at a camel beauty pageant in Abu Dhabi

Hopefuls are brought from near and far for a camel beauty contest near Liwa, Abu Dhabi.

Photograph by Dave Yoder, National Geographic

By Carl Hoffman

To attend a camel beauty contest is to get a glimpse into Abu Dhabi’s soul, the soul of the Bedouin, for whom the camel was everything—wealth, transportation, food, clothing, survival itself.

Over the week preceding the pageant, tents rise on the high dunes outside the desert city of Madinat Zayed, as Bedouin trickle in. They arrive in SUVs, with trains of water tanker trucks and flatbed trucks bearing camels and fodder, each an entire encampment, primarily dedicated to the black camels originally from Saudi Arabia, which are the most prized.

The biggest contest is held in December, attended by thousands; sheikhs and kings and potentates arrive by helicopter. The 2009 event saw $400 million in camels bought and sold.

Even the smaller, regional contests, however, are pure spectacle. On this day, seven new Chevrolet four-door pickup trucks stand in a row as first prize for the seven categories, in which camels are judged by such criteria as straightness of their ears, floppiness of their lips, and length from foreleg to hind leg.

Beginning at dawn outside a huge, air-conditioned tent, owners herd their camels, draped in silver and gold, into corrals, where the judging takes place. There are camels everywhere, bellowing and prancing, all before a line of 50 gold chairs, on which sit men in white dishdashas, smoking pipes and drinking coffee from small porcelain cups. It’s festival and contest and social fair, as men (there are no women present) rub noses and exchange kisses in the traditional Bedouin greeting. For the victors, winning a truck will be nice. But far more important is the value of a top camel: $1 million or more for a prized beauty.

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