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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in the Middle East, heads are turned by the confident strut and fluttering eyelashes of a young camel. In the Gulf states, love for such beasts has manifested itself in a popular cultural event: the camel beauty contest.

Only seven months after the United Arab Emirates held the largest in the world, a second, bigger show is now being planned. Such is their popularity, tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the Mazayin Dhafra Camel Festival in December, in the desert Western region of Abu Dhabi.

At the last event, in April, 17,000 camels were entered in beauty contests. During the 12-day competition, 100 cars and more than 35 million dirhams ($15.6 million) in cash were awarded to the owners of the most-beautiful camels.

Professional breeders shampoo them daily, cut their hair and manicure their feet. And the judging is tough. Camels are rigorously inspected for quality whiskers, nose condition, length and posture of the neck, the shape of the hump, shininess of the coat and the length of the toe parting.

Camel contestants are decorated with harnesses that cover the hump and rear legs - a "camel bikini", one organiser told the National newspaper. Jaba al Min Haley, one of 20 judges during the April contest, said: "I love camels more than anything, even more than women. They are so important to us."

While the sight of men in flowing white dish-dash robes bestowing their attention on animal humps might seem odd to Westerners, observers say there is little difference between the the Mazayin Dhafra and Britain's Crufts show for pedigree dogs.

Organisers say the upcoming event is not just about finding Miss Camel 2009. Mohammed Khalaf al Mazrouei, the director of Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, said the event would help "preserve the cultural heritage of Abu Dhabi and the Emirates, and to ensure that UAE forefathers' rich heritage reaches future generations".

The UAE is experiencing a culture shock unparalleled in the world. In the past 30 years, booming construction and oil industries have seen millions of migrants enter the country. There are now four foreigners to every Emirati and many citizens fear thousands of years of Arabic culture is at risk.

The show, between December 23 and January 2, will give the sheikhs the opportunity to impress and compete against their royal rivals. Last year, the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, paid a record Dh10 million for one winner.

The next day, another royal paid even more: Dh15 million for Mabrukan, a male, and Dh10 million for Muraia, a female.

But not every one considers camel contests harmless fun. A prominent Saudi cleric issued a decree against them on the grounds they encourage pride.

"Everyone must repent of these acts from which no good can come because of its evils, and they should beg forgiveness from God," said a fatwa issued by Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak.

ONE HUMP OR TWO?

The world camel population is estimated at 20 million, divided mostly between two species, the one-hump Dromedary and the two-hump Bactrian.

There are many sub-varieties but most of those on show in the UAE will be the Dromedary varieties, Asayel and Majahim.

Camels are bred for their meat and dairy produce, as well as beasts of burden.

Their humps carry layers of fat, which gives them the energy to travel long distances.

Asayels have a light yellow coat and are renowned for their sweet milk and are used in camel races. Majahim camels are larger, dark-brown, and considered the better for use in desert caravans.

Both camels' meat is a delicacy, although the Majahim is considered to have the better flavour.