Who's the fairest Camel of them all?

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A beauty contest for camels? Our first reaction is they have to be joking.

To Western eyes, a camel ranks with the rhinoceros, or the Madagascan aye-aye, or Les Dawson, as one of the ugliest mammals the world has ever seen. But perhaps that is a cultural blindness, because it was never a matter of life and death for our forebears that they should own a fit camel.

Until recently, this strong, resilient animal was as vital to the nomads of the Arabian desert as horses were to medieval Europeans. Even now there are estimated to be 16 million camels in the Middle East and North Africa, including nearly 400,000 in the United Arab Emirates, so when the descendants of Bedouins hold a camel beauty pageant, it is as serious as a horse show.

More than 20,000 of these elegant even-toed ungulates with their single humps converged in December on the desert town of Dhafra, in west Abu-Dhabi, for the fourth Al-Mazayin camel beauty competition, where 800 owners competed for prize money of up to 35million dirhams (£6.2m).

The dromedaries are divided in to two categories – light-skinned, or Asayel, and dark-skinned, or Majahim – and are judged on a 100-point scale, taking in attributes such as nose shape, head size, whiskers and the positioning of the ears, as well as general fitness, size and the shine on their coats. All entrants have to be meticulously clean and free of disease.

The Al-Mazayin pageant is a relatively new fixture, launched 20 years ago after breeders had begun mixing different camel species to produce faster animals for racing. Its organisers wanted to encourage preservation of thoroughbred camels as a way of keeping a part of traditional Arab culture alive.

The best camels are immensely valuable. Three weeks ago, the Saudi Gazette reported that a camel named Nomas, with a brilliant white coat, had sold for 3 million riyals (£513,000). In November, a Saudi breeder bought 10 camels for the equivalent of £8.6m.

"This is the only animal we love," the festival's director, Salem Al-Mazroui, told Middle East news agency The Media Line. "A Bedouin could not survive in the past without camels, so now we want to give back to them. In the past, people focused only on racing and speed, but no longer."

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