So this past week I went on a real Saudi style adventure with my new kiwi sidekick, and we visited the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival about 140km outside of Riyadh. It’s kinda like Saudi’s version of America’s next top model, except the models are camels. The only real thing I had heard about the festival was that there was a camel beauty pageant and I was like hells yeah I’m in. Over the past few years festivals and local events are often advertised in some form of English although the information isn’t always correct regarding schedule and timings. We took our chances and booked my driver and headed out.
It took us about 90min to reach the location of the festival and let me tell you it was lovely leaving the traffic and congestion of populated Riyadh behind. The first hour we drove mostly through the desert, its colour changing from a sandy brown to a brightening shade of red. We passed Bedouin tents and much of the desert along the roadside was dotted with camels and goats. It was great. The closer we got to the festival location the landscape changed. It became green and you could see rock canyons in the distance. We came across a large herd of camels being led alongside the road. The camel caravan wound behind a rock wall and we had Joseph my driver stop at the base so we could take some pictures. We scurried up the rock hill making sure not to trip on our abayas and popped over the wall in full view of the approaching caravan. I’m pretty sure two western women were about the last thing they expected to have pop up!! We took videos and photos of them, and they of us, as the camels shuffled past. Many waves and Assalamu Alaykum’s were exchanged. There were maybe 50 camels in the herd and several baby camels. We made our way back to the car, mud wedged into the soles of our shoes and carried on towards the festival grounds.
On arrival the festival looked exactly like a fair back home. It’s a huge enclosed area with parking areas surrounding the site. There was a main road leading to the main entrance that was blocked off by barriers and security at several points leading up to the main gate. At every check point the security guards would motion for Joseph to pull off and park, but as soon as the windows in the back went down and they saw me and my kiwi sidekick they would yell “VIP” and we would wave and say “hello” and they would move the barricade out of the way and let us drive on to the next one and the same scenario would happen until we were at the main entrance and Joseph was exclaiming “Unbelievable!!” We just giggled with delight. Sometimes blond hair is a curse, sometimes it provides VIP treatment.
We left Joseph and walked towards what looked like a massive arena with stadium style seating. There were very, very few ladies and no other westerners around. There was a lot of staring, but also a lot of “Hellos” and “Welcomes” being yelled at us. We decided to go have a seat with the many other visitors and headed towards the seating area. Oopsie. We tried to sit in the men’s sections. We really should know better and were politely pointed towards a further set of seats of which no one was sitting in. The men’s area was packed. Not a lady in the ladies area. Hmmm? So we walked over and were directed towards some seats. I pointed towards my wrist to ask the security guard what time the show started. He shook his head and said “mafi.” Which means none or no. I pointed towards the packed male seating area with some confusion as to how there wasn’t a camel parade today yet all these men were waiting. At this point a tour bus of Saudi women pulled up so we asked them to translate what was going on. One lady told us that there was no camel parade or contest today but that the next one was tomorrow. I had her ask the guard what all the men were sitting in the stands then waiting for then?! He replied that no one had told them that there wasn’t one today. The Saudi lady and I looked over at the maybe 200 men sitting there and then back at each other and laughed. Then they wanted to take some selfies. So we did. And they asked where we were from, assuming as it is always assumed that we are American. We politely told them we were not. Several of them spoke perfect English so I asked where they worked and they said that they were all teachers. After a few more pictures we then parted ways.
We decided to explore the rest of the festival site. There was the normal Saudi style security to get in. Men on one side and women on the other. The women’s side was wide open and they searched our bags and wanded us down. Before they used that metal detector wand thingy on us a girl asked if I was pregnant. I winked at her and said “Inshallah” and they all three of these Saudi girls started giggling. We were killing it on making friends at the camel festival. There were literally pretty much zero other ladies around and we walked past a food area into a main courtyard area with traditional Arabic music playing and surrounded by statues of camels. Many male attendees wanted to stop us to chat. One young guy asked where we were from and when I said Canada he replied that his uncle lived in Canada and was searching for a second wife for him. Mind you this guy was maybe 20 years old and was looking for a second wife, and I’m 38 and can’t even keep a full-time boyfriend. Oh the irony. I replied that Canadian women love to be second wives, but I don’t think he caught on to the sarcasm. We then ran into a group of four boys who all saluted us and we exchanged photos. One of the funny things about living in Saudi Arabia as a western women is that men of literally all ages will likely find you attractive. Back home 20 year old boys would never ask for my picture, or want their picture taken with me, or try and sneakily take a picture of me. But at this camel festival it was like a full on photo shoot. At one point some kid was taking video footage of us and I told my kiwi mate that I was quite certain we were having a documentary made. Naturally, we took a bunch of photos as well. It does warrant being said that at no point did we feel unsafe. Other than feeling a bit like celebrities, everyone we encountered was very friendly and generally excited that we would want to visit a cultural festival.
It was starting to get hot so we ducked into a tent that was like a mini indoor market selling spices, and local handicrafts. We did a little shopping and took advantage of the huge AC unit to cool down. We then headed towards the Planetarium. On the way there we passed 2 large walls with pictures of fallen soldiers on it. I think it’s easy to forget that every country has lost service people, and that there are heroes in every culture. Inside the planetarium was a roof mural basically of the constellations and a couple exhibits. The men inside were very educated and happy to explain things to us. By this point we’d been at the Camel festival for like an hour and yet to see an actual camel so we set out to find some. On the outskirts of the festival we ran into a a guy outside the media building. He didn’t speak much English but we asked him “Mafi Camels?” so basically “No Camels?” He then took us on a tour. First stop outside a Bedouin tent where four teenage boys were tending to one camel. They asked if we wanted to ride it and we both declined. I rode a camel in Oman and it was a terrifying experience and I’m not a huge fan of riding animals. Horses, donkeys, elephants, camels. All are terrifying to me. So we took some photos and then were escorted by our new tour guide over to some tents off in the distance all the while being trailed by our new squad of these four teenage boys. Over near this new set of tents were another 15 or so camels spread out with decorative drapes and saddles. We took a bunch more photos and the teenage boys got bored with us and walked away. By now it was almost noon and the sun was directly overhead and it was quite hot. Our unofficial tour guide signaled a golf cart over and we were instructed to climb in and then were driven in a couple circles while a guy with perfect English explained to us about the festival. Almost everyday there is a camel parade. Two weeks of the festival are dedicated to the white camels and two weeks to the black ones. They are judged not as single camels but as a group, in groups of 25, 50 and 100. The cash prizes are very high, I can’t remember the specifics off hand. We were then driven around the festival site and dropped at the main exhibition hall which was closed, but this helpful guy had the security guard open the door and we were left to roam on our own.
The main exhibit hall had information about camels. Did you know that the country that has the most camels in the world is Somalia? Or that there are 17 million camels spread around the Middle Eastern countries? This exhibit also had a National Geographic Photography section and some camel related art that I would’ve loved to have bought, but sadly wasn’t for purchase. Once we were finished there it was time to start the drive back to Riyadh, and we returned the same way we arrived. On the drive back we passed a small lake that had formed from the recent rains. There was a tree in the lake and kids were swimming at the base of the tree. We made Joseph turn around so we could go back to take a picture, as I knew I would be disappointed not to capture the carefree nature of these local kids escaping the heat. We walked to the edge of the water and the kids waved and yelled at us “come in!!” Such a great way to end a really special day!
The festival ends this weekend. So it’s your last chance if you’re wanting to attend. You can get the schedule and more information here.