From across the vast and parched Arabian Peninsula, camels converge on Abu Dhabi for an annual beauty contest. Here the traditional beast of burden becomes a pampered show animal.
On this night—the final night—a fog swirled across the desert, as thick and impenetrable as a sandstorm. It made mysteries of the stars, and spies moved across the dunes in darkness. They searched from camp to camp in the strange air, looking for something special.
The quest hadn't started this way, with espionage in the dark. For a month before this January night, Bedouin caravans had trekked great distances across the Arabian Peninsula, from Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and elsewhere. They had come to a remote spot in the Abu Dhabi emirate to take part in the show: a beauty pageant for camels.
For nine days the animals paraded before a grandstand—camels of all sorts, the most prestigious being groupings of 35 females—and imperious judges waved away the homelier groups with their dejected owners. As the days passed, the judges rewarded certain standards with dispatch, winnowing a field of some 24,000 contestants.