When people talk about seeking out unique experiences in the UAE, getting beyond the cities, and learning more about the cultures and traditions of the country – THIS IS IT!
**The 2019 Al Dhafra Festival dates have been confirmed as 9 December to 24 December 2019**
What is the Al Dhafra Festival?
The Al Dhafra Festival is held annually at the end of December to celebrate and preserve the heritage of the people of the United Arab Emirates, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The Al Dhafra Festival brings together a variety of traditional Bedouin cultural events including:
- Camel racing
- Saluki racing
- Date packing
- Sheep milking
- The centrepiece event, the Camel Mazayna Competition (Camel Beauty Contest).
To an outsider some of these events might sound a little hard to believe, but this is serious business – visitors and competitors come from all over the GCC, with the Camel Mazayna alone attracting over 1,500 entrants, involving 25,000 camels and prize money on offer is upwards of 55 million dirhams – that’s $15m USD!!
We have attended the event five times now during our time living in the UAE, with very young children. We hope to attend every year as each time we discover more places, events and happenings and its an opportunity for us to truly embrace the country we live in – far from the shopping malls, high rises and luxury hotels that people so often associate with the UAE.
Please check the event organisers site for more information on program
It is far from the easiest event to find, navigate your way around or even understand – and it’s probably not the easiest thing you will ever take your kids too. But I do think the Al Dhafra Festival is a must for anyone living here in the UAE or visiting at this time of year.
It has certainly been one of the most culturally rewarding experiences we have undertaken and we have never regretted the long drive and exposing our children to this event.
To make things a little easier for you, here is a beginners guide to tackling the Al Dhafra Festival
Where do you find the Al Dhafra Festival?
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The Al Dhafra Festival is held in the Western (Al Gharbia) Region of the Abu Dhabi Emirate, near the city of Madinat Zayed. This is about a 2-hour drive from Abu Dhabi or 3 hours from Dubai – taking the E11 coastal road, then the E45 into the desert.
Be warned it is not in the town itself, but beyond; signage is historically quite poor, so keep driving through the town of Madinat Zayed and after civilisation seems to end, do keep going!
There is a small exit to the right, then a roundabout under the highway, turn here and you have arrived at the front entrance to the event. From here, pretty much follow the cars; your best bet is to follow the Tilal Liwa Hotel signs from the E11 – don’t expect any obvious maps!
Organised tour or do it alone?
Currently, we are not aware of any organised tour groups, nor public transport that would allow you to attend the event, you will need to take your own private vehicle.
In past years I would have recommended driving a 4WD to get the most out of the event, but roads are now pretty much tarmacked throughout. There is also a permanent ADNOC station now at the festival site. We previously used to recommend fuelling up when you got to Madinat Zayed but there’s a lot more organised infrastructure in place making it much more accessible.
Day trip or stay overnight?
Although there is a lot of driving involved, it can be done as a day trip from Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The E11 Freeway being duplicated through to the Saudi border makes this a much safer drive than it used to be on the old truck road.
To maximize the amount of action you see (not all events are on every day) you may prefer to stay in the Western Region overnight.
The closest hotel you will find, within the grounds of the event is the Tilal Liwa Hotel. It is a reasonable quality resort hotel and includes family-friendly facilities, but be warned it does tend to be fully booked over the festival dates – get in early.
Heading back towards Madinat Zayed, maybe 20 minutes drive away you will find the Western Hotel. Another clean and respectable family resort-style option (note it is dry).
If camping is your thing you could also try pitching a tent Bedouin-style – I would suggest having some desert camping experience under your belt before attempting this though! It is not clear what areas of land are free to be camped on – best to contact event organisers to find out which areas you are permitted to camp on.
What does it cost to attend the Al Dhafra Festival?
Like so many great events in this country, it is completely FREE, though you should factor in fuel cost getting there and back. Inside the event, there may be meals and handicrafts you wish to purchase.
Are there food options for families at the Al Dhafra Festival?
There are but limited. Since the Traditional Souq has moved to a permanent building, there seem to be more options. Many of these are not written in English and are what I would describe as Middle Eastern cuisine. If you have sensitive or fussy tummy’s at all, I’d strongly recommend you BYO some lunch.
We did note on our last visit a portable KFC van had been brought in. No guarantee it would be there again but may open up more options.
What to wear out to the Al Dhafra Festival
This is a desert festival so there is A LOT of sand and wind to contend with; those with long hair will want a hair tie at the very least. It does cool in the evening once the sun goes down and whatever footwear you choose will fill with sand.
Dressing in moderation for men and women is always recommended wherever you travel in the UAE, but be particularly mindful of this when you’re outside of the capital cities – don’t come in your beachwear basically.
Women do not need to be wearing head scarfs but should dress conservatively. The event is vastly attended by young men but there are some families around too. This is definitely one of those occasions to skip the singlet tops and short shorts for something a little more modest.
If you are bringing a small infant, other than at the Traditional Souq you can pretty much forget bringing the stroller as you’ll be traipsing it through the sand; a baby carrier is your best option for getting around.
Be prepared to use some guesswork and get lost!
Timetable, what timetable? If you are lucky enough to find an event schedule published anywhere, don’t take it for granted.
And unless you are fluent in Arabic, expect everything to get a little lost in translation. Signage has improved over the years we’ve been attending and some are even in English now, but knowing if you are in the right place, at the right time is still a lot of trial and error. The festival grounds are huge so you cannot easily walk from one competition or display area to another.
Note finding an online guide in advance as to what is happening each day is nigh on impossible (and if you do, the events scheduled may or may not be on!) Do check out the official website for the Al Dhafra Festival [ARABIC] for a more detailed description of the events you can find; they are not very good at keeping it up to date but the events themselves don’t change much year to year.
Although not prominent, there are several Emirati guides willing to explain the event’s program and give you recommendations. If you head to the Traditional Souq first (this is now a permanent structure that has been built next to the camel mazayna complex) you might be able to speak to a guide FIRST.
In fact, they looked to be actively seeking out tourists at our last visit to guide you on what events are occurring, even personally guiding you to them and placing you with an English translator to explain what’s happening. (See more on the 2017 event feedback below).
So now you know all the practicalities of getting there; what’s the event all about, and what’s not to miss?
Know thy camel – Understanding the Camel Mazayna
What exactly makes a beautiful camel?
From my limited experience (and the faithful handbook they gave me back in 2012 which I am constantly referring back to!) there are two distinct types of camel you will see at Al Dhafra – the taller dark Majahim and the lighter Arabian Asayel – both are dromedaries (single-humped camels).
Camels are judged on factors including;
Head & Neck – Whiskas, nose shape, drop of the lip
Upper Parts – Back length and height, hump shape and position
Front Parts – Neck width, shoulders and feet
Back – Leg size and straightness
General shape and fitness – Beauty displayed, toe parting length, physical health and hair shininess
The competition is broken down by breed, and by age group and sex. 5 of each group are selected to be judged in their “lap”.
The Arabs are very passionate about their camels
And by this I mean loud! If your little ones scare easy do warn them – though as a family or clearly a visitor to the UAE you will be seated further away by security. The hoards of young men chanting, banging their sticks in the grandstands can be louder than an English football game and a little overwhelming.
See some footage of the colour and excitement inside the Camel Mazayna.
The camel racing as well brings a crowd of very over-excitable young men beeping their horns loudly and joining (though not at a great pace) the camels racing around the enormous desert track in 4×4’s, almost completely drowning out the presence of any actual camels.
Note the camel racing here uses real-life jockeys, they are all Asian men though, not young boys that may have been used in the past.
Not to Miss: Avenue of the Millions
Staying overnight would also give you an opportunity to see “Avenue of the Millions” or “Charee al Malyoon”. Camel sales occur along this stretch of road each evening from around 5pm. A camels fan club can be seen passionately following around their favourite steed. (We’re told a camel sold in 2014 for 1million DHS was reportedly now worth 25million DHS in 2015, this is BIG business!).
There is a Children’s Village, located at the rear of the Traditional Souq. It appeared to be operating all day, no clear opening times were given but I wouldn’t expect anything much to happen before midday at an event like this.
It was set up with a stage show area but no event timetable was given and I suspect performances – rightly so – would have been in Arabic. My children enjoyed doing some colouring and the shopping at the sweet stalls but I expected a few more things to be included.
Things change year by year though, so you never know what to expect! In 2015 some traditional wooden play equipment was added – though use it at your peril! It really was pieces of wood tied together by yarn and looked extremely dangerous. The local kids were, however, delighted to have our little blondies join in with their game.
2017 Event Experience
Every year this event continues to get bigger and better and more open to outsiders. We asked one of our readers and contributors, Shea, to share her experience attending the 2017 experience.
“We had an Emirate guide approach us when we first walked in and he stayed with us for the whole day. Our guide was a Univeristy Student who spoke fluent English and he informed us that he was employed specifically to help western visitors feel more comfortable and to educate us on Bedouin culture.
When he went on a break he introduced us to another Emirati who stayed will us until he returned. Our guide even escorted us by car, to a separate location adjoining the main arena, where we were served a FREE all-you-can-eat lunch, which included camel.
It was as authentic as you can get as we were one of only 3 western families in the marquee with the rest being the workers, who were a combination of Emirati’s and other nationalities. They seated and served us first while the others had to wait behind a closed door and, when the door opened, you’ve never seen a spectacle at a food hall, in your life.
They also had free horse rides at this location, which the children enjoyed. We were then taken for free camel rides before being taken back to the main area for ‘shopping’ at the souk and to see the judging of the main event.
How we managed to strike the jackpot and be there on the main day is thanks to the force of the universe, not due to any prior planning or availability of a timetable. What a day!!!”
Have you attended the Al Dhafra Festival before? Is there anything else you would advise families to be aware of? Did you have any questions we could help with if you plan to visit?