Emirati camels have never been considered the flashiest or most beautiful in international circles.
Their accessories cannot compete with the jangling anklets of Rajasthan’s state animal. In size, they’re humbled by the Bactrian titans of Central Asia. In grace and speed, they fall behind the white sprinters of Sudan.
But when the must-have camel accessory of 2015 arrives, Emirati camels will turn heads.
This week, the German entrepreneurs who brought the world pine-scented camel shampoo have announced their newest product idea for pampered camels: a full-body leotard that helps race camels run faster and “beauty” camels stand taller.
Compression suits are worn by race horses around the world to improve performance by increasing blood flow. Top-secret testing for a camel version is now under way in Australia.
“If it’s fitting the horse, why we don’t do it for the camel?” says Anne Wolter, who is the head of research and development for Al Shibla, the Al Ain-based luxury camel-and-horse-product company. “We can compare it with the compression socks we get in the hospital. It activates the blood circulation in the muscle. Dectomax
“If there’s a health problem, people usually just call the vet and ask for an injection, but there are physio-therapy treatments, and the compression suit is a physiotherapy treatment.”
The Germans launched their horse and saluki compression suits at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex) on Wednesday.
Their target market is the Arabian Peninsula’s multi-million-dollar camel-race industry.
Al Shibla has teamed up with a compression suit company in Australia, where suits are commonly used at endurance races. The company is the sole regional distributor for horse suits and has helped develop a suit for salukis, the Gulf race hounds.
Snug compression suits are made of soft, thick material that covers the body, increasing circulation by slightly constricting blood vessels. Worn before or after training, the suit causes more blood and oxygen to reach the muscles, reducing the lactic acid build-up that causes cramping. The animal is entirely covered, except for the neck and head.
“[The animals] are much fitter, so you can just see everything has a good blood circulation,” says Birgit Kemphues, the director of Al Shibla. “They just get more power, it looks healthier and you have a healthy horse. At the moment we’re focused on the horses, and the salukis are the next step for us.”
Suits for salukis, which are slender and athletic like horses, require very few alterations.
A skin-tight fit for a camel, however, has its own difficulties – after six months of research, the design is still a work in progress.
While race horses have a sleek and streamlined uniformity, race camels are too lumpy for a one-size-fits-all suit.
It’s not just the variability in hump size, but hump placements that matters.
It’s expected that camel suits will be made to measure for each individual. A camel’s vital statistics? Neck to hump, hump to tail and shoulder to hip.
“It’s the same as if you’re going for a fitting for a dress,” says Wolter.
A camel’s knee and breast are two other unforeseen difficulties. While horses typically rest standing, a camel sits on folded knees with its breast rubbing against the ground. Extra thick and durable material will need to be tailored for these parts of the body.
There have been early dress rehearsals in Australia, but camels Down Under are often of Central Asian stock, which means that they’re a completely different shape. So designs will be made to order and tested on Al Ain dromedaries.
“We are not yet done with these things,” says Wolter. “It’s still a secret of what exactly is going on.”
Al Shibla is planning suit designs for juvenile camels, from six months to four years, and mature camels.
If the experiment with race camels is a success, it will try to break the beauty-camel market. In an industry where a single camel sells for millions, it’s a lucrative prospect.
While beauty camels are graceful and languid in their movements, the suits will help them travel in comfort, so they arrive at a competition relaxed and looking their best. Tests show suits reduce water loss by a third on long-haul flights, and Wolter believes that it will also reduce their stress on long road trips across the Arabian Peninsula for major beauty pageants.
At regional pageants, like Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra Festival, camels are trucked thousands of kilometres. Some owners march their camels to beauty pageants to avoid the stress of travel by car, but it is a timely and costly undertaking. Compression suits could offer an attractive alternative for owners and a more comfortable experience for the camel.
A suit for beauty camels is a long way away. Beauty camels, the tall and curvaceous majahim breed that originated in Saudi Arabia, are a completely different shape to the slender race camels commonly found around Al Ain and the Northern Emirates. “It will never fit,” says Wolter.
The two-month trial period for the horse active suit was well received by owners and horses alike. Horse owners, accustomed to international racers, technology, trainers and ideas from outside the Gulf, were already familiar with the concept and welcomed the local brand.
It remains to be seen whether camels are as easy-going about suiting up. The process of zipping up can take 10 minutes, but it gets faster as the animal and owner adjust to the process.
It’s not just camels that may take some persuasion. Camel owners are notorious traditionalists. But once a style catches on, be it belly-dance belts for humps or dangling plastic gold necklaces, everyone wants in. Races, above all, are about showmanship, and the concept of the suit has been well received.
“The camel people, when we told them, they got surprised,” says Wolter.
Once the entrepreneurs explained that the suits could be decorated with the owners’ or camels’ names, colour, design or national flags, owners were on board.
“People, they just come to hear some news, what’s happening,” says Kemphues. “They are really hungry, I must say, hungry for this suit. They are looking all the time for new items and how they can improve the speed of their camels.
“In the past four years, I feel there is more and more interest, more races and more [financial] benefit to the races.”
Saluki owners, whose racers yield smaller wins and smaller fame, may be a more difficult market.
“In general in the market, slowly there are changes coming,” says Wolter. “If things are stuck in the mind, they will stay in the mind, but slowly people are adapting to new things.”