In Saudi desert, camels remain Bedouins' beast WAR IN THE GULF

January 30, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

HOFUF, Saudi Arabia -- Mohammed stood about 15 feet away from his prospective purchase, carefully eyeing it for flaws.

"See the shoulders, how broad they are, and the long legs," he said, through an interpreter. "Yes, this just might be the racing camel I am looking for, but I'll tell the owner that he's broken down or he will cost me more."

Mohammed explained that he would offer a modest price for this particular racing camel, but he said that some have sold for as much as $500,000.

After a few more minutes of consideration, Mohammed, 63, finally nudged the owner standing next to his blond camel. The two men touched noses, kissed cheeks and after a short discussion, Mohammed made an offer, and the auction call began.

Other prospective buyers, dressed in long flowing "thoubs" anred-and-white headdresses, circled the racer. Some seemed interested, but after more than 15 minutes of price calling, Mohammed's offer stood. Honor-bound to the purchase, Mohammed paid $2,200 for the prize camel, and another of countless camel deals at the Hofuf camel market, in central Saudi Arabia 100 miles from the Persian Gulf, was closed.

For thousands of years, desert nomads have gathered in Hofuftraveling hundreds of miles to haggle over the price of milk, racing, stud and even eating camels.

According to tradition, camel auctions in this city have been held as long as there have been camels and Bedouins in the Arabian desert, perhaps since 1400 B.C.

Although a town of at least 15,000 residents, it has few Western visitors, and the ubiquitous religious police, known as the Mutawa, approached reporters, taking names and arguing with their Saudi escorts.

The scene was reminiscent of a state fair livestock show.

Nissan and Toyota pickup trucks, many driven by young boys, careened around the market loaded with hay, or with camels with their legs tied close to their bodies.

At one end of the market, a camel, dangling 30 feet above the ground, was being lowered by a crane onto the back of a truck.

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