“Camels are mentioned several times in the Quran. They are God’s way of reminding us that beauty is superficial,” Jabbah al Tabib says as he strokes one of his most expensive camel’s necks. “I think they’re amazing. I’d rather die than sell my camels for meat.”
Mr Tabib describes himself as “Saudi Arabia’s foremost camel expert,” and he certainly has a claim to it. He gets around four calls a week from insurance companies seeking his advice on how to settle road traffic accident claims involving the animals, and frequent requests from around the country to weigh in on other camel-related legal disputes.
When cars were invented it was predicted that using the camel as a means of transport as well as source of milk and meat would die out – but well into the 21st century, around four million of them remain an important part of daily life for many Saudis, as well as a connection to an ancient heritage.
Currently the self-proclaimed camel czar and his son are presiding over the chaotic auctions and care of more than 30,000 of them as part of the King Abdul Aziz camel festival – the kingdom’s latest idea for showcasing its culture and history for tourists.
‘Vision 2030’, Saudi Arabia’s long-term blueprint for weaning itself off its reliance on oil revenue, involves investment to the tune of $20million – including a shot in the arm for the kingdom’s nascent tourism industry.
Although the kingdom is home to many archaeological sites, pristine beaches and excellent diving, it’s not thought of as a holiday destination like Egypt’s Red Sea resorts or the city of Petra in Jordan.
Conservative social rules, a lack of alcohol and restrictive dress codes coupled with blazing desert heat aren’t the usual ingredients Western holidaymakers look for.
Nonetheless, the kingdom’s authorities say they are working on introducing tourist visas to make it easier for foreigners to visit – and investing in tourism infrastructure.
That’s clear at the King Abdul Aziz camel festival, where around 60,000 visitors came to the month-long celebration of camel and desert culture which ran March 15th – April 15th.
The annual heritage festival in Rimah was founded in 1999 by local Bedouin tribes who decided to host a competition to find the most beautiful camel, but went on to receive support from the Saudi royal family – and this year opened up to camel owners and tribes from across the Gulf and visitors from all over the world.
‘Best in show’ type competitions for the 1,200 breeders and owners who visit (featuring combined prize money to the tune of 115 million riyals, or $31 million), huge auctions, cultural shows and a small museum are featured at an impressive tented site covering 12 miles of the ad-Dhna desert which organisers managed to set up in just 10 weeks.
“Camels are like buying diamonds or art,” said Dr Badiah AlSubaie, head of protocol at the festival. “You don’t buy them to hide them away, you want to share them with others. It’s a matter of habit, hobby, and culture.”
The festival has plans to expand next year with races, the tradition of ‘baby camel tipping’, and possibly the creation of an international forum for all countries with a camel culture, he added – from Australia to Mongolia.
First time visitors thinking about becoming a collector isn’t cheap, however. Picking up a pet camel at the King Abdul Aziz auctions could set you back as much as $500,000 for a top specimen.
“We are competing with the horses,” Dr AlSubaie said. “But there’s no reason in time camels are just as appreciated!”