ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – It is the Arab world's answer to the Westminster Dog Show — a camel beauty pageant. Nearly 20,000 one-humped hopefuls are about to compete for the coveted title of most attractive camel in the world.
The drop-dead dromedaries are judged on such characteristics as ear curvature, nose shape and glossiness of coat. Prizes range from brand new Range Rovers to more than $10 million in cash.
Owners, hoping to curry favor with the judges, act like nervous stage moms, painstakingly grooming their camels, adorning them with bright national flags and rhinestone harnesses.
"Camels are a part of our culture, and this is a chance to celebrate their beauty and make some money at the same time," said Salem Ebrahim Al Mazrouei, Director of Operations for the festival, which is sponsored by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.
The eight-day pageant kicked off Wednesday in a barren stretch of desert an hour's drive outside of the country's capital, Abu Dhabi. Camel owners have dubbed this place "Millionaire's Road" for its promise of rewarding the best-looking camels with instant wealth.
Some of the Bedouin owners have journeyed from as far away as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, traveling by foot with their herd for several weeks, often with little to eat.
Abdallar Fahad Dosari, a 22-year old from Riyadh, entered 10 of his camels in the contest.
He figures Madiah, a sprightly 1-year-old dark-skinned "Majahim" camel, has the best chance of winning, so he covered her in a blue and white flowered camel blanket, meant to bring her luck.
"People have seen her and offered to buy her from me, but I will never sell her," Dosari said.
He thought for a moment and said, "Well, maybe for 300,000 Dirhams ($100,000) I would consider it."
The pageant provides a chance for wealthy camel owners to buy purebreds that will add to their prestige. Camel racing is hugely popular in the Gulf, and wealthy sheiks are willing to spend small fortunes to add prized camels to their collection.
Top camels have been known to fetch millions of dollars.
Some are considered so valuable, their owners refuse even to entertain the notion of a sale.
"One man from Qatar offered to buy a camel for 30 million Dirhams (around $10 million) but the owner refused," Al Mazrouei said.
For the poor, camels are often their family's main source of food. The chance at selling a camel to a wealthy buyer is even more lucrative than the pageant's prize. On the sidelines, there is a brisk trade.
"I am coming to win, but if I can sell my camel, it's even better," said Salem Al Ajmi, an officer in Kuwait's army.
The contest's top judge, Hamad Safia Al Mari, a famous camel trainer from Saudi Arabia, says he'll pick a winner according to "a secret" formula devised during a lifetime devoted to studying the creatures.
"All camels are beautiful," he said, "but I am looking for the perfect camel.
"I am certain that here, I will find one."