Saudis crowded to camel races and sword-dancing this week at a desert cultural festival that has come to reflect growing anxiety over national unity and the loss of tribal Arab identity to Western culture.The Janadriyah began 22 years ago as a showcase for a Bedouin culture heritage of camels, tents, coffee pots and swords that seemed in danger of disappearing.
But as well as a jamboree of cultural affirmation, in recent years it has become an opportunity to encourage national unity, with state television showing King Abdullah and other Saudi royals performing a Bedouin sword dance known as ‘arda.
The Saudi family used an austere version of Islam to conquer and unite the vast country in the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century, commitment to a supranational idea of Islam still comes before patriotism for many Saudis.
But the September 11 attacks of 2001 in the United States, where most of the attackers were Saudis, spurred the authorities to try to boost the sense of belonging to the Saudi state.
Regional conflicts such as Iraq have increased this anxiety. “The theme and principle is that we all live in one country, and to unite all these regions together and allow each one to know the other,” said Ahmed Al-Shalan, an organiser of the event outside Riyadh, speaking at the camel races.
Sociologists say around half of Saudi Arabia’s native population of 17 million hails from tribal, Bedouin origins.
But even among those there can be a deep sense of separate identity that shows in seemingly small things such as different names for the sword dances and slight variations in dance moves.
Each region displays its dancing prowess at the Janadriyah, along with other Gulf Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where Westernisation is more advanced than in conservative Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s strict religious values and traditions sit uneasily with the Western fashion, music and technology increasingly favoured by its growing urban youth population, now enjoying the fruits of the country’s oil wealth.
“We need to send a message to our new generation to let them know about the heritage and culture of our fathers and grandfathers, to keep in mind that whatever comes from the West we have always to stick with our culture,” Shalan said.
“Now most of our generation are completely forgetting about these things,” he added.
A crowd of well-heeled Europeans, mostly diplomats, sat in the grandstand, peering through binoculars as about 50 camels raced around the desert course.
The women sported dark sunglasses and exquisite hairdos, but still wore the black ‘abeya’ cloak that strict Saudi culture imposes on all women in public.
“Camel racing has a special place. It’s part of our heritage, it’s more important than horse racing,” said a camel owner from the Red Sea city of Yanbu, whose animal had just won.
“I’ve been doing this 14 years … I have around 35 camels and they have all won before. They need special effort, special food, special training. And of course it requires money, or you cannot win,” he said.
Camels have long been a central element in Bedouin culture, with multiple uses including as food, transport, war machine and even companion. The Arabic language famously has over 40 terms for different breeds, ages and genders of camel.
Mohammad Iyad, an owner from Mecca who has been racing for three years, said a prime Sudanese or Omani camel could fetch up to 1 million riyals ($267,000) at auction.
“It’s not about running after prizes, it’s a profession with breeding and experience,” he said.
Yet a cloud has hung over camel racing in years as international rights groups and the US government criticised the use of boys under the age of 18 to ride the animals. Many have been sent as young boys by their parents from the tribal regions of Sudan and Pakistan, where camels are also found, to work for years in Gulf Arab countries in what human rights groups have said is a form of slavery.
Saudi television, airing the races, said all the riders were at least 18. Most of those at the Janadriyah were small and wiry, as owners prefer, but looked to be teenaged. They were reluctant to give personal information.
“When you win it really encourages you. It needs a lot of training, and there are prizes,” said Hamoud Sadah from Sudan, referring to four-wheel-drive vehicles presented by the Saudi National Guard, the festival organiser, to winning owners.
The Westerners in the crowd were thrilled, crowding round the camels afterwards to pose for pictures.
“I love it, you don’t have the chance to see this often,” said an ecstatic Jocelyn from France. “It’s beautiful, for people living here temporarily in Saudi Arabia it’s an occasion to enjoy yourself.”