UAE’s Al Dhafra Festival offers a unique insight into Bedouin life

More than 90,000 visitors from the UAE, other Gulf countries and elsewhere are expected at the festival’s 11th edition.
December 24, 2017
An Emirati man holds a falcon at Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi. (The Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee)

Abu Dhabi - With its camel beauty pageants, falconry competitions, Ara­bian horse races and traditional shows, Abu Dhabi’s annual Al Dhafra Fes­tival is a celebration of United Arab Emirates’ cultural heritage, offering visitors a matchless experience of Bedouin life and traditions com­mon to Arab Gulf countries.

Organised by the Cultural Pro­grammes and Heritage Festivals Committee, the 2-week festival takes place near Madinat Zayed in Al Dhafra region bordering the Empty Quarter desert.

Some 20,000 camels com­pete in 82 contests, including the mazaynah (beauty) pageant and the famous Bayraq competition. Prizes totalling 1 million dinars ($272,000) was at stake for the best-looking group of 50 camels in golden Asayel and black Mujahim camel catego­ries.

The festival’s 11th edition also features falconry competitions, saluki dog racing, poetry chanting and Emirati cooking and dates com­petitions. Classic cars and art work­shops inspired by life in the Empty Quarters, handicrafts competitions and a traditional market are also on show.

Since it was first put on in 2008, Al Dhafra Festival has had the pur­pose to preserve, encourage and promote Emirati heritage while giv­ing an economic boost to the region.

“This is the biggest event in Al Dhafra region. It celebrates and honours the traditional way of life people still cherish in this area,” Ab­dullah Butti al-Qubaisi, director of events and communications of the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee — Abu Dhabi, said in a statement.

“Our culture, heritage and tra­ditions are still very much part of daily life in Al Dhafra and this fes­tival gives people an opportunity to express, in many different ways and through many different traditions, their love for their country and their roots.”

The festival attracts participants and visitors from across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman to celebrate centuries-old desert tradi­tions passed down through genera­tions. It has given a great boost to the local economy and motivated product creativity.

“For the past decade, Al Dhafra Festival has opened different trade channels, generated incomes and raised awareness on marketing tools for the people in the region,” Qubaisi noted.

“Through competitions run at international standards, partici­pants learned how to package their handicrafts, for example. They also learned how to better care for their date palm trees or their animals. The festival also showed people new, creative ways of presenting their heritage, ways that also ensure their legacy is passed on to their children,” he added.

The festival has a major effect on local businesses, Qubaisi said, add­ing that “weeks before the festival, all hotels in the region are fully booked, restaurants and cafes are very busy and service and goods’ providers flourish.”

This year’s festival features more than 20 competitions, activities and shows. In total, 1,400 competition winners will walk away with more than $10 million in prizes.

A new feature of the festival is the daily Bedouin show, with authentic local desert tradition presentations, a shooting competition and a shal­lah competition. A Nabati form of poetry, shallah is often improvised verse, dedicated to beautiful camels by their owners or even strangers who happen to see them and can’t help expressing their admiration.

Shallah has always been part of Al Dhafra Festival, usually involving men praising the beauty of the win­ning camels, but was turned into a poetry competition for this year’s edition.

Other festival favourites are the Ghanam Al Naim Mazayna (sheep beauty competition), the Purebred Arabian Horse Race, the Falcon Mazayna and the Falcon Hunting Competition, the Arabian Saluki Traditional Race and the Arabian Saluki Beauty Contest, as well as the Best Dates Competition.

The festival attracted more than 90,000 visitors last year, a number organisers expected to surpass this year.

Many visitors prefer to pitch a tent on the festival’s desert grounds, though a special visitors’ hospitality camp is at their disposal. Organisers encourage visitors to use the facility for safety reasons.

“Pitching a small tent out there is dangerous,” Qubaisi said. “The de­sert is not lit at night and cars driv­ing across it could easily hit small tents. At the committee’s camp, we have tents available for visitors to use, where they will be safe.”

Several food outlets set up at the festival and the area’s permanent souk has a small supermarket. Other eating options are two cafes at Tilal Liwa Hotel, next to the festival’s grounds and cafes and restaurants in Madinat Zayed, about 10km away.

Al Dhafra Festival runs through December 28.