With its sleepy eyes, dopey face and remedial maths demeanour, it’s easy to knock the humble camel. And yet, bizarrely, the last few months have seen a sudden surge in global popularity for the creature that appears to spend most of its time standing still, looking at sand. The Los Angeles Times for example, loudly insists that camel is ‘this fall’s hottest colour’, while traditional, boring items, such as ‘milk’, and ‘science’, have been given a much needed boost through camel milk and indeed, camel DNA. Of course, that’s abroad: For the UAE and its 380,000 ‘ships of the desert’ (that’s 171,000 tonnes of milk a year!) the dromedary has always featured high on the Emirati’s shopping list.
‘Historically, if you go back 40 years, camels were everything: providing transport, milk, hair to make ropes and so on,’ explains Dr Alex Tisdale, a camel veterinarian operating out of Al Ain, who believes that locals still feel indebted to their beasts.
‘While I wouldn’t go as far as to say camels are sacred, recently Emiratis are trying to promote the “debt of service” they owe to the noble animal, and so racing and beauty competitions have seen a great interest.’
Camel milk has already developed an almost cult-like following here, but in July of this year, the European Union gave the green light for Dubai to export camel milk. Nutritionists and health freaks extol the many health properties of camel milk: it’s high in insulin, making it a safe bet for diabetics, plus it’s high in vitamin C and iron, and bulging with camel nanobodies (a unique variety of antibody), making it good for disease prevention.
However, probably one of camel milk’s biggest selling points is the fact it’s low in lactose, meaning it’s one of the few dairy products the lactose intolerant can consume without fear of reprisal. According to Abdullah Al Janan, the executive director of the Agricultural and Animal Affairs department in the Ministry of Environment and Water, exports to Europe will begin next year. Look out for it at Tesco’s!
While the ministry prepares to ship camel milk to foreign markets, another Dubai-based company has already started exporting the first camel products out of the country. Nassma – the world’s only supplier of camel milk chocolate – launched its first overseas venture this year.
‘We had, and still have, daily inquiries to enter foreign markets, be it Kazakhstan, Brazil or Turkey,’ says Martin van Almsick, the company’s founder. Ultimately, though, they settled on Japan, launching their first overseas outlet in Tokyo, in the prestigious Mitsukoshi department store. Van Almsick says the reception has been strong and growing.
‘By Valentine’s Day next year, you will find Al Nassma chocolates in 14 department stores throughout Tokyo,’ he tells us. The brand is also planning on opening up stores in Hong Kong and Qatar in the near future.
While the world is slowly starting to embrace camel milk and camel milk by-products, Dubai has already moved on to camel meat. This year, Local House, one of the city’s few restaurants serving up Emirati food, started pushing their camel meat burger in full force, and even put up a massive banner in front of the restaurant advertising what has since become one of their signature dishes. Camel curry is also available at the eatery.
‘Camel meat is lower in cholesterol,’ explains Dr Tisdale, ‘however, contrary to popular belief, locals don’t eat significant amounts of it. It’s more something brought out for a special occasion, like a wedding.’
Some camel proponents, like Van Almsick, see the burgers as a positive trend. ‘There’s an untapped market as far as the camel’s concerned,’ he insists. ‘Why can’t products be made from camel hair, camel meat – there could be camel meat jerky. Louis Vuitton could make camel hide bags, why not?’
While the rest of the world isn’t perhaps quite ready for the Vuitton camel clutch, there is another part of the animal that foreign boffins have become very interested in: the DNA. In July, scientists in Saudi Arabia, in partnership with the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), mapped the genome of the Arabian camel for the first time. The reason this is significant is that camels are one of the most resilient mammals on earth. Their immune system is exceptionally disease-resistant, they are able to tolerate a wide range of temperatures and can sustain long periods of time without water. They are also less susceptible to foot-and-mouth disease than cows or South American camels.
The research done this year could lead to the development of more powerful vaccines for human beings, using camel genetic sequencing to develop stronger antibodies that combat our diseases. It could also offer insights into how to protect other livestock from such afflictions as foot-and-mouth. According to Tisdale, scientists attribute the camel’s unique nanobody (the same stuff found in their milk) to their healthiness. ‘There is a lot of work being done in Belgium on these antibodies, and they seem confident that there are a lot of potential human applications in the future,’ he explains.
So it seems that this year really is the year of the camel. Who knows? In 10 years time, the regal beast may be responsible for a stronger, more disease-resistant breed of human – and 2010 was the year that all the pieces started to fall into place. Just remember, you heard it here first.
Get in on the camel trend.
Where to eat them
Local House Home to the camel burger.
Al Musallah Roundabout, Bastakiya (050 734 9926).
Bin Eid Traditional Restaurant The first restaurant to serve camel meat in Dubai.
Al Khaleej Road, Deira (04 266 3644).
Where to ride them
Camel rides are included in desert safaris.
Desert Rangers (04 357 2233).
Where to watch them
Catch races at the stables in Al Asaili (Al Ain Road, after the Sevens).
After 10pm, Sun & Mon (050 343 4455).