quotes Camels: A repository of Saudi Arabian history

08 January 2024
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Updated 08 January 2024

Camels: A repository of Saudi Arabian history

  • Camels hold great cultural significance for the people of Saudi Arabia and the broader Gulf region
  • Saudi Arabia is home to around 1.8 million camels

This year marks the Saudi Year of the Camel, following three previous cultural celebrations dedicated to coffee, calligraphy, and poetry. These events, proposed and overseen by the Ministry of Culture, focus on heritage and national identity.

Camels hold great cultural significance for the people of Saudi Arabia and the broader Gulf region. They are no less symbolic than the French rooster, Australian kangaroo, Russian bear, or American eagle.

There are approximately 35 million camels worldwide, with the Arab region accounting for 17 million. Somalia ranks first among Arab countries in terms of camel population, followed by Sudan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

According to the latest official statistics, Saudi Arabia is home to around 1.8 million camels. The sector contributes over SR2 billion ($534 million) annually to the Saudi economy, with figures expected to rise significantly in the coming years.

In the harsh environment of the Arabian Peninsula, the camel has been an integral part of life for 8,000 years. Without it, survival would have been impossible. Camels were the subject of the famous Mua’llagah (a type of Arabic poetry) of Tarfa bin Al-Abd, while famously the poet and companion Hassan bin Thabit did not envy pre-Islamic Arab poet Al-Nabigha Al-Dhubyani a thing except for the fact that Al-Nu’man bin Al-Mundhir, king of Al-Hira, gave him one hundred head of Asafir camels — considered among the finest at that time.

The Prophet Muhammad had a camel known as Al-Qaswa, and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah was built on the spot where she chose to rest. The poet Al-A’sha, too, had a beloved camel that he adored and praised, while the unification of Saudi Arabia during its 37-year process was accomplished on the backs of thousands of camels.

King Abdulaziz was known for his assortment of camels, called Al-Raimat, among them his special, dominant she-camel named Al-Duwaila. King Salman is also known for his passion for camels. Once, during a stay in Rawdat Al-Khafs in the north of Riyadh, during Al-Murab’a period, he requested from my father, the late Prince Saud bin Mohammed, to send his beautiful camel Al-Manqiah from the Majahim, known for its elegance and splendor, to accompany him in the Rawdah. The camel stayed with him until he departed. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, meanwhile, owns the elite Saudi camels known as Al-Sharaf.

The camel is an exceptional animal. The Chinese used them to transport goods such as silk and spices along the ancient maritime Silk Road. Each camel could carry 400 kg of goods, leading to the moniker “the ships of the desert.” They were also integral to the Hilf Al-Mutayyabin agreement and the journeys of the people of Makkah to Yemen and Sham, as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. The caravans trains called Al-Uqaylat Al-Qassimi, named after the Uqal that they brought from Iraq, traded in camels and livestock 400 years ago, traveling to various countries like Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, and India. Camels served as both means of transportation and commodity.

Camels have diverse functions. Omani and Sudanese camels are for racing, while the coastal and Tihami camels, in the south and west of Saudi Arabia, are known for their abundance of milk. The Zamal are camels known for strength. Most Arabian camels are classified according to their colors, and the best are measured in beauty contests. There are several colours: Al-Majahim (black), Al-Wadh (white), Al-Sha’al and Al-Safar, both of which range between light and dark brown, with Al-Sha’al being sandy and red. Camels are native to the peninsula, and those exported to other countries are exposed to genetic mutations that affect them and lead to changes in appearance.

Currently, a company called Sawani, affiliated with the Public Investment Fund, focuses on investing in the transformative camel industry, including liquid and powdered camel milk. Their products have already been exported to over 25 countries worldwide. They have utilized camel milk in the production of “Camelicious” ice cream, available in eight flavors, as well as in the cosmetics industry. In addition to Sawani, the Saudi brand Ibil" established in 2021, has been involved in manufacturing clothing, bags, and shoes using camel wool and hides.

Their aim is to become a global brand within 15 years. It is a known fact that camel hides are durable and long-lasting, second only to crocodile hides. Even their bones are used in construction practices. And, of course, both as a means of transport and as a spectacle in itself, the camel plays a key role in the Saudi tourism sector. The camel industry is expected to become one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost non-oil resources if it achieves its targets in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan.

— Dr. Bader bin Saud is a columnist for Al-Riyadh newspaper, a media and knowledge management researcher, and the former deputy commander of the Special Forces for Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia. X: @BaderbinSaud