ABU DHABI - Sour milk (laban), classic cars and shooting are the first three competitions to open the 11th Al Dhafra Festival December 14 on the outskirts of Madinat Zayed in Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi Emirate.
The much anticipated camel mazaynah (beauty) competitions start today and will continue daily till the end of the Festival, on December 28th, except for Friday the 15th and the 22nd. All in all, there will be 82 camel competitions this year, including the famous Bayraq, awarding AED one million for the best looking group of 50 camels in each golden Asayel and black Mujahim camel categories.
Organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee – Abu Dhabi, Al Dhafra Festival is a celebration of Bedouin heritage, hence the thousands of visitors expected daily will experience shows and competitions that touch on all pillars of desert culture – camels, falconry, saluki, horses and dates.
With over 1,500 camel owners and at least 20,000 camels camping on the Festival's desert grounds, this is one of the world's largest Bedouin gatherings on the planet. People are coming from as far as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, not to mention from all across the UAE, to celebrate centuries old desert traditions that were passed down from generation to generation. Throughout the two weeks Festival, there will be camel shows, falconry, saluki racing, poetry chanting, Emirati cooking and dates competitions, classic cars and art workshops inspired by life in the Empty Quarters, handicrafts competitions and a traditional market and, for the first time ever, a daily Bedouin show.
Since its first edition in April 2008, Al Dhafra Festival had a double purpose: to preserve, encourage and promote Emirati heritage and to give 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 live in this area. Our culture, heritage and traditions are still very much part of the daily life in Al Dhafra Region, 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," said Mr. Abdullah Butti Al Qubaisi, Director of Events and Communications Department at the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee - Abu Dhabi.
"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. Through competitions run at international standards, participants learnt how to package their handicrafts, for example, they learnt 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 insure their legacy is passed on to their children."
"From an economic perspective, the Festival continues to make a major impact on local businesses. Weeks before the Festival, all hotels in the region are fully booked, restaurants and cafes are very busy and nearly every service and goods providers flourish".
Busier than ever, there are over 20 different competitions, activities and shows at Al Dhafra Festival 2017. In total, 1,400 competition winners will walk away with AED 38 million in prizes.
New this year will be a daily Bedouin show, with authentic local desert traditions presentations, a shooting competition opened to anyone who wants to take part 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 recited by men praising the beauty of camel competition winners, which prompted the organisers this year to limelight this type of poetry into a festival competition.
Also happening this year are several Festival favourites: 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.
Last year, Al Dhafra Festival had attracted more than 90,000 visitors and this year similar numbers are expected. Many of them prefer to pitch a tent on the Festival's desert grounds to enjoy the campfires, poetry recitals, camel trade news and stories from the old days. Last year, the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee – Abu Dhabi has prepared a special visitors' hospitality camp, which is also set up this year, and organisers urge visitors to use its facilities.
"Pitching a small tent out there is dangerous. The desert is not lit in the night and there are 4x4 cars driving across it, so they could easily hit a small tent, not being able to see it in time," warned Mr. Al Qubaisi.
"At the Committee's camp, we already have tents available for visitors to use, where they will be safe," he added.
There are also several food outlets set up at the Festival and the permanent souk opened last year has a small supermarket. Other eating options are the two cafes of Tilal Liwa Hotel, right next to the Festival or the cafes and restaurants downtown Madinat Zayed, about 10 kilometers away.