“A beautiful camel stands out in the competition,” says Mohammed Al Tamimi, who was a judge in the beauty pageant portion of the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in 2018. Undeniably, camels have come to occupy a very special place in Saudis’ hearts — and not just on the popular camel pageant circuit. The national animal of Saudi, camels are native to the Arabian Peninsula and have accompanied Saudis as far back as recorded time. “There are petroglyphs showing both wild and domesticated camels, next to man, all over this area,” says Dr. Laura Strachan, assistant professor in the core humanities and social sciences department at Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University in Khobar. “I asked a tour guide friend of mine recently what the camel means to Saudi men, and he said, ‘They are their soulmates.’”
They are also plentiful and extremely useful. According to 2011 statistics, the camel population is estimated to be around 1.6 million within the Arabian Peninsula — with about 53 percent of those camels found in Saudi. And that number has been growing by about 5.2 percent per year since 1961. From providing food to shelter to labor to entertainment to company, the camel has been, and continues to be, inextricably linked to Saudi life.
“Camels are beasts of burden; they’re meant to carry things,” Strachan says, noting that this is why people refer to them as “ships of the desert.” The ancient camel caravan routes that came up through southwestern Saudi heading to Makkah and Medina moved tremendous amounts of goods and people. And to this day, camels are integral to Arabian families, who use the animals to transport their children and homes during their yearly migrations.
A camel caravan in Yanbu, a staging point on the spice and incense route, circa 1920.
“You won’t see camels in the cities, but you will see them if you’re driving down the smaller highways,” Strachan says. “It’s one of those moments you always remember. They instantly remind you that you’re in Arabia. If you go on a trek here, you can hire a camel to take you.” But more commonly, families will own them, along with goats and sheep, and use them for a variety of purposes. In addition to providing physical labor, a camel’s wool can be woven into cloth, and its milk can be drunk (camel milk is naturally high in antioxidants, so many locals claim it is very healthy). And, once the camel dies, it can be used for its meat and leather. “Nothing goes to waste,” Strachan says.
Despite their gentle-seeming demeanor and soft, fluttery eyelashes, camels are not always friendly. “When I first started my research, I was with a bunch of Arabian men in the desert. One of them was missing part of his fingers. They had been bitten off by a camel. And this was a man who lived with camels every day,” Strachan says. Perhaps for this reason, camel raising, racing and showing is often considered to be a man’s work, though women may tend to the baby camels.
Still, the bond between Saudis and their camels remains strong. While the prized camels that attend camel races, pageants and shows, such as the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, can sell for more than $1 million and are treated like royalty, the average Saudi camel is more like a trusty pet. “One night, we were having dinner with a Bedouin family that lived across the wadi from us. Suddenly, we heard some rustling, and it was the Bedouin family’s camel, who had recently given birth,” Strachan says. “She had come over to remind the man of the family to feed her and her baby. It was such a tender moment.”
The experience of riding a camel has been described as “wild and amazing.” Read more about seeing Saudi via camel back here.
—Didi Gluck is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience reporting on travel, culture and style for publications including Travel + Leisure, JWM, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.