They came in their hundreds from as far as Nejd, the heart of Saudi kingdom, and Dhofar, the last lands of Oman before it borders with Yemen. They came in horse-powered caravans, one truck after another, loaded with camping gear and, of course, their most precious cargo - their camels! For the next 20 days they will be sitting in the desert of Al Gharbia, the Western Region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, just like in the old days. They will share stories, cook over the open fire and compete in the camel mazeyna - the camel beauty competitions.
Indeed, it's that time of the year again! Al Dhafra Festival, now in its ninth year, is back in Madinat Zayed, bigger than ever! Under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee – Abu Dhabi (CPHFC) organised Al Dhafra Festival is organised by from 10th till 30th December.
"Al Dhafra Festival has managed to promote the authentic Emirati heritage and reinforce the valuable efforts made to ensure its safeguard and protection. Over the years, the festival has contributed to the promotion of Al Gharbia on the map of international tourism, through introducing the region, the details of its culture and authenticity, and the different traditions of the Emirati people," said His Excellency Faris Khalaf Al Mazrouei, Chairman of CPHFC.
"Tales of ancient history, civilisation and modernity are awaiting visitors, who will experience a unique harmony between the authenticity of the past and the excellence of the present," he also added.
For the first time this year, Baynounah Camel Festival, the competition that used to be held just before Al Dhafra for Emirati camel breeders, was made part of Al Dhafra, which is opened to participants from all over Arab Gulf.
"There are several reasons why we combined the two. First we had to coordinate with the heritage festival in Al Wathba, and we didn't want two heritage festival to clash," said Abdullah Butti Al Qubaisi, Director of Projects Management at CPHFC.
"It is also more convenient for participants, as they don't have to set up camp, then pack up only to return a week later and set the camp again. Now they can set just one camp and enjoy the festival and the competitions for both Baynounah and Al Dhafra".
The first four days of the festival, until 14th of December, will be dedicated to Baynounah camel mazeyna. Just as with Al Dhafra, both Assayel, the pure bred golden camel that originates from Oman and Majahim, the black camels of Saudi Arabia may be entered in the Baynounah competition rounds, as long as they are bred in the UAE and owned by Emirati camel breeders.
Bigger than ever in terms of camel beauty contests, Al Dhafra festival will have this year 103 camel competition rounds, 37 of which will be for the Baynounah mazeyna.
There will also be a camel milk competition (for the camel that gives most milk) and a sheep beauty competition. Altogether, Al Dhafra 2015 will have no less than 15 heritage activities and competitions, as the festival grew over the years from just a camel beauty show when it first started in 2008 into a celebration of Emirati culture, traditions and heritage.
"We will have a lot of art programmes this year and also educational activities for children at the festival," said Al Qubaisi.
"There are some changes to the Emirati traditional souk, which has been built right next to the competition arena this year and it will be permanent, remaining opened all year around."
First introduced in 2014, the purebred Arabian horse and the saluki speed races are back this year, along with falcon and camel races. There are also competitions for best dates and best dates packaging, a sour milk and a photography competitions.
Winners of all al Dhafra Festival's competitions will share total prizes valued in excess of Dh 50 million! At the heart of it all, though, remains the camel mazeyna. Thousands of Arabia's most beautiful camels will gather here over the next three weeks.
"In terms of participation, we expected 20 percent more than last year, when we had 1500 camel owners and about 25,000 camels joining the festival," said Obaid Khalfan Al Mazrouei, Director of Heritage Competitions at CPHFC.