Al Dhafra Festival
About Al Dhafra
Al Dhafra is one of the three main regions in the emirate of Abu Dhabi and also the biggest. As it lies to the west, it is also known as the Western Region and borders Saudi Arabia to the south and west. Despite being the largest of the regions, it is the least populated.
It has a range of terrains, including a large area of desert, a long coastline and islands.
To read more about Al Dhafra Region, skip to More about Al Dhafra
Al Dhafra Festival
Al Dhafra Festival is now in its 16th year and is a fabulous time to learn more about Emirati heritage and culture. One of the festival’s aims is to encourage Emiratis to continue practising age-old traditions or, for some, to return to their rich heritage.
Over the years, the festival has been in different locations across the Western Region of Abu Dhabi. However, it is now mainly based in Al Dhafra, with events also in other areas.
The major event is Al Dhafra Camel Festival but other activities include falconry contests, shooting competitions, horse races, Saluki races and beauty contests for falcons, Salukis and sheep.
Once you’ve finished watching whatever took your fancy, you can head to the heritage village for some shopping or entertainment. Stop off first at the Majlis to be welcomed with Arab hospitality of Arabic coffee and dates.
Various stalls sell local handicrafts, such as embroidered dresses, crocheted keyrings and charms, bukhoor (for fragrancing the home, clothes and yourself), ghee, chutneys, Arabic coffee and cookies. Others sell winter clothing, such as long coats with fur collars or perfumes and coffee and tea sets.
Visit the heritage area, where you can see clothes being embroidered, baskets being woven from palms and different food items being made. Next, look out for the Yola, Emirati dance, to the sound of traditional music. You might also catch the band of the Police or Armed Forces.
Al Dhafra Camel Festival
Al Dhafra Camel Festival now takes place over different locations and there are also camel beauty pageants at Madinat Zayed, Sweihan and Razeen on different dates.
As well as the camel beauty contest, new activities have been added, such as a laban-making competition. If you haven’t tried laban yet, it’s like buttermilk, perhaps a bit sourer. The one in supermarkets is made from cow’s milk but, of course, this contest is for camel milk laban.
Another interesting competition is camel-milking. The Mahajim camels are milked morning and night and the quantity recorded, with the prize going to the best milk-producing camel.
Book Western Hotel or Tilal Liwa Hotel in Madinat Zayed
Al Dhafra Camel Beauty Pageant
The camel beauty pageant, or mazayna, is one of the most unusual aspects for many visitors and it’s an event not to miss.
You will see the two main breeds – the large, dark-furred Majahim and the slightly smaller, lighter-coloured Asayel. The Asayel is the breed you see most often around the dunes and plains in the UAE and is used for racing. The Majahim, on the other hand, are especially prized for their milk.
Two other breeds that compete in smaller numbers are Al-Wadh, white camels with necks longer than the others and hybrid Asayel.
Judges assess different parts of the camel’s body – the ears should be firm, the lip droopy, the legs straight, the neck slender, and the cheeks broad. An elegant gait is also desirable and good condition of hair or fur,. Points out of 100 are awarded for several criteria.
Before their role commences, the judges take an oath on the Qur’an that they will not be biased towards any specific camels or owners to ensure fairness.
Owners can enter their camels into different categories according to breed and age. These ones are year-old Majahims and are waiting to be judged. Despite the extremely loud grunting noises they were making, they were very friendly!
View this post on Instagram
The prize money, provided by the government, runs into tens of millions. In 2023, it was just under 100 million, mainly dedicated to the camel beauty pageants. The biggest prize this year was 3 million dirhams! This goes to the winner of the Bairaq al Emarat Award.
While going to look at the beautiful entrants is fun, watching the joy of the winners is moving. You’ll hear ‘Namoos!’ being called out loudly. Namoos may be translated as something along the lines of honour. Ultimately, the prize money is not what matters but the honour of winning and owning the most beautiful camel.
Once out of the arena, the winning camel, wearing a coat showing its new status and further adorned with a paste made of saffron and a variety of spices, is paraded down the road, surrounded by a convoy of cars honking their horns in celebration. Youngsters hang out the windows and stand high through the sunroofs, proud of the honour the camel has brought their family.
Million Street earned its name from the transactions of millions of dirhams taking place there. As you can imagine, prize-winning camels don’t come cheap and some have cost as much as ten million!
Along the street, camels for sale are paraded up and down and informal auctions take place. After prizes have been awarded, you will also see the winners doing a ‘lap of honour’ with the cars in tow.
A temporary market is also set up for Al Dhafra Camel Festival, selling camel gear, camping equipment and other hardware items. Alongside your regular camping paraphernalia, you’ll find what you need for a luxury experience: large grills with chimneys, seating and even sinks with marble counters and mirrors.
Stop by the camel accessory makers to see camel bling at its best with bridles and harnesses decorated with crystal, gold thread, etc.
Attending Al Dhafra Festival is a unique experience that you should include on your bucket list of things to do in the UAE. So look out for the 17th edition in 2024 and mark it on your calendar.
Ideally, you should stay a couple of days and if you like camping or are on a budget, you can camp nearby. You need to go further into the desert for a more peaceful night. You’ll probably be woken by camels grunting in the distance but that will wake you up in time to see the sunrise.
If camping isn’t your thing, then book to stay at the Western Hotel or Tilal Liwa in Madinat Zayed. You can also ask about free hospitality at Al Dhafra Camp.
Disclosure: When you make a booking or purchase through links on this site, I may earn commission from partners. This helps me to build the site and bring you more great posts!
More about Al Dhafra
Al Dhafra Festival is just one highlight of the region.
Al Dhafra accounts for around two-thirds of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and has seven main towns – Ruwais, Madinat Zayed, Liwa, Mirfa, Ghayathi, Sila’a, and Delma Island. It also has rich oil and gas reserves and an essential economic role.
The coastline is 350 kilometres long and boasts some beautiful unspoilt beaches. Several islands lie off the shore, the best known being Sir Bani Yas, a nature reserve and eco-resort. Sila’a, Ruwais and Mirfa are all on the coast, with Delma Island being around 30 km from the mainland.
With an area of 35,000 square kilometres, there’s plenty of room for exploring, off-roading and camping. (If you need a new tent, you can buy a Coleman tent on Amazon UAE.)
Liwa Oasis is to the south on the border with Saudi Arabia and the edge of The Empty Quarter. Scattered with villages and several forts, it was the ancestral home to the tribe Bani Yas and the ruling family of Abu Dhabi for many years.
Tal Moreeb, or Moreeb Dune, in Liwa, is the highest dune in the UAE at 3oom, attracting 4WD and quad-biking enthusiasts from far and wide.
With the area’s natural beauty and opportunities for sports activities, it’s not surprising that Liwa has its own winter festival. Competitions include cycling, motocross and both horse and camel racing. Camping facilities are available on-site or you can find your own spot further out.
July is when the Liwa Date Festival takes place. While the festival is for date farmers to get together, exchange new techniques, and showcase their produce, it’s also a popular attraction for citizens, residents and visitors.
Not only can you taste many different dates, but you can also learn about date farming and just about everything related to dates. Be careful when buying though as some types are incredibly expensive!
Other things to do in Liwa include walking in the oasis and visiting some of the forts – Qutif, Dhafeer, Arada, Mezeirah, Al Jabanna and Maria Al Gharbia
Liwa is also home to the fabulous Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Resort and what a stunning location to treat yourself to a luxury staycation or an extension to your visit to Abu Dhabi.
If you prefer glamping, Liwa Nights is just the place for you.
(Photo Credit: Liwa Nights)
Alternatively, you can also camp nearby if you’re on a budget or like the simple outdoor life.
Book the five-star Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort
Book Liwa Hotel or Liwa Nights
Al Dhafra Watersports Festival
Yet another grand celebration in the region is Al Dhafra Watersports Festival. Heritage marine competitions include dhow and rowing races. Other contests include windsurfing, boat races, paddle boarding, fishing, water skiing, beach volleyball, beach football and swimming.
Competitions, such as cycling, horse shows and traditional games, take place along with heritage activities, live performances, a traditional souq and many food options. With so much going on, there will be no time to get bored!
If you want to stay overnight, you can book Bab Al Nojoum Al Mugheirah Resort or Mirfa Hotel. Alternatively, you can camp nearby.
Book Bab Al Nojoum Al Mugheirah Resort or Mirfa Hotel
Al Dhafra Watersports Festival is held at Mirfa and usually in spring. Dates are yet to be announced for 2023, so keep your eyes open.
Sir Bani Yas Island
Sir Bani Yas Island is not what you expect to see in a predominantly desert-filled country. But, surprisingly, half of the island is a wildlife park with giraffes, ostriches, cheetahs and gazelles free to roam the plantations.
Stay at the luxurious Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa or Anantara Villas, book a safari tour, go mountain biking, have a shot at archery, or even take a hike. If you’re more of a water person, go kayaking around the mangroves or snorkelling at the beach.
Book Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa
Book Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort
Book Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Sahel Villa Resort
Shams Solar Plant
While not a tourist attracttion, you might want to see the Shams Solar Power Plant if you’re near Madinat Zayed and are interested in sustainable energy. You can’t go in but you can drive up the side of for a glimpse of the enormous plant from above. Its 258,000 mirror troughs are quite a sight to behold. You can read more about the Shams Project here.
Finally, I visited Al Dhafra with Xpedition Arabia and had a fantastic trip. If you’re looking for a relaxed and gentle, guided self-drive tour in the desert, Marina ensures just that. We had an off-road drive in the stunning creamy-coloured dunes, stopped to see baby camels and met with some falconers before setting off to Million Street and Al Dhafra Camel Festival.
At night, we camped in a secluded spot in the desert where we enjoyed marshmallows around the campfire after dinner at the festival and then had pancakes for breakfast. The next day we went to see some of the entries in the camel beauty pageant before enjoying a delicious lunch in the majlis at Al Dhafra Camp, arranged by Marina.
All in all, it was a great experience. Check out Marina’s other tours (including Oman and Saudi Arabia) on her website. You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook.
If you liked this post, you may also like Places to visit in Al Ain or Qasr Al Watan, Abu Dhabi.
Search and buy camping gear for your trip
Abu Dhabi Guidebooks
- Lonely Planet Pocket Abu Dhabi
- Buy the book (UK) or buy the Kindle edition (UK)
- Buy the book (US) or buy the Kindle version (US)Bu
- DK Eyewitness Top 10 Dubai and Abu Dhabi
- Buy the book (UK) or buy the Kindle edition (UK)
- Buy the book (US)
- Go here to see more hidden gems in the UAE or go to Home
- Follow on Instagram or Facebook for regular photos, tips and snippets of cultural and historical information too
- Sign up for Glimpses of the UAE Newsletter
- Follow Glimpses of UAE on WordPress.com
- See the Glimpses of UAE Map
do you know when the Al Dhafra festival will be held next year? Are there any other camel festivals? I would especially like to see the beauty contests! thanks.
It’s usually around the same time every year. I’ll update on this post when the date is announced.
There is one in Al Dhaid but much smaller. This is definitely the best in the UAE. Saudi has camel beauty contests too.