Ever wondered how easy it would be to get your hands on your very own dromedary? Holly Sands navigates the livestock quarter of Al Ain Central Market to learn more.
Around 378,000 camels call the UAE home – that’s roughly one camel for every 21 people living here.* If you’ve been in Dubai for any length of time, you can’t fail to have spotted these desert-dwelling, single-humped creatures, whether being led, going solo, taking tourists for a ride on the beach, charging across the perilous highways that run between the emirates, or sitting on your plate, in a bun, next to a side of fries. Maybe you’ve even attended the annual Al Dhafra Festival, held in December in Abu Dhabi, which typically sees more than 20,000 camels take part in a beauty pageant and vie for cash prizes.
With the launch of places such as camel-milk café The Majilis Dubai in The Dubai Mall, you might think that camel as cuisine is a new concept. Indeed, perhaps due to the low fat content of both meat and milk, it does seem to be experiencing a surge in popularity at the moment – even the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was seen tucking in on a recent visit. But the reality is that camels have been used as much for food as transport for as long as tribes have wandered the region’s deserts. Wealth was often associated with the number of camels owned and as such they were used as payment and traded like currency.
More than 2,000 years since they were first used domestically, camels are still very much big business in the UAE. Curious to find out more about the trade of these animals, and whether I might even be able to own one myself, I decide to hit the road and head for Al Ain, home to one of the UAE’s biggest livestock markets.
Today, the buying and selling process has had a bit of an upgrade – most recently in the past five years, when Al Ain Central Market was built, bringing a large part of the region’s livestock trade out of the dunes and into the suburbs – directly behind Al Ain’s shiny Al Bawadi mall to be precise. Earlier this year, there was also talk of closing down the main Abu Dhabi abattoir and camel market, but this has apparently since been scrapped in favour of upgrading the existing facilities.
Despite the rather central location of the Al Ain market in the oasis city, and apparently regular visits from tourists, my arrival still inspires a flurry of activity, and several sellers make their way over, with insistent invitations to see baby camels. It’s not quite as dubious as it sounds, but research has told me that viewing newborns can come at a price, so I politely decline and make my way – audience thoroughly in tow – towards one of the many pens.
After leaping, rather dramatically, out of the path of an oncoming 4x4, the drive-thru nature of the market is one of the first things to tickle my mouth into a smile. Much of the bartering takes place through wound-down windows, with buyers cruising between pens and salesmen to pick their beasts.
I turn around and ask those forming my new entourage how old the smallest creatures in the pen are, and how much they want for each. For a four-month-old, roughly the size of a pony, I’m quoted Dhs3,000. Apparently if I take a few, I can have a discount.
As we conduct our disjointed conversation through a combination of gesturing and the odd bit of English (I’m ashamed to admit my Arabic and Urdu skills are left wanting), my Pakistani guides explain that the livestock comes from around the emirates and at the market I can buy either for milk, meat or racing – the latter comes with a much heftier price tag, and I’m quoted Dhs55,000 for one particular dromedary, who peers out at me through a set of lashes Elizabeth Taylor would have been proud of.
Unfortunately, for feeble-hearted spectators the goings on here are far from cute. We watch as workers at the market wrestle ropes around some of the younger stock to load them onto trucks. It’s a noisy affair; the camels let out loud, low-pitched groans as they attempt to resist and stay with the herd in the pen.
Throughout the morning, as more camels are loaded onto trucks, I learn the majority are destined for dinner tables. I’m struck by sadness when I watch a former racing camel being led out of a truck and herded into a pen with others destined to be meat – he’ll be sold for around Dhs12,000, they tell me. No peaceful retirement for this poor fellow.
Some destined for food are bought for wedding feasts – serving a whole camel is a tradition that goes back many years, sometimes involving stuffing the animal with a whole goat.
Taking in the dozens of pens on the other side of the road, all filled with goats, I wonder how often someone pulls up to buy one of each for such a meal, but I’m told it’s uncommon. Noticing a smattering of week-old kids leaping around energetically (of the goat variety, not human, I hasten to add), I can’t help feeling a small wave of relief for them. When I’m told they could be mine for Dhs300 each (less than brunch), I’m certain I could sneak them past community security in my Dubai neighbourhood. Only the thought of the dramatic impact on my garden’s vegetation and – grudgingly – Emaar’s pets rules stop me reaching for my purse.
According to Mohammed Yousif Al Shaikh Al Hammadi, head of the Dubai Municipality’s veterinary control and treatment unit (which can carry out a free blood test on your camel to check it’s healthy before you buy), anyone can own a camel in Dubai – there’s no special licence necessary. Before I get carried away he is quick to add ‘Not in a large garden or in the city. It should be on a farm or in the countryside.’
Sadly, however leafy and removed my little patch of grass is in The Springs may seem, I’m not quite sure I could persuade anyone to call it a farm.
If you can’t own one, here’s where to ride one in Dubai.
Al Maha Desert Resort
The luxurious hideaway on the outskirts of the city offers an hour-long sunset camel trek, with bubbles if preferred. These beasts are shampooed and have no odour at all.
Activities package Dhs950 per person. www.al-maha.com (04 832 9900).
Al Sahra Equestrian Centre
This secluded desert ranch offers 90-minute camel excursions. Guests learn the history of the camel and taste camel milk before setting off on a 40-minute ride. There’s also a sunset bubbly option.
From Dhs180. Jebel Ali-Lehbab Road, www.alsahra.com (04 427 4055).
Jumeirah Zabeel Saray
Book a day at the beach and factor in a short stroll along the surf on the back of a camel for an extra DhsTBC.
Beach access Dhs250 per person subject to availability. Palm Jumeirah (04 453 0000).