There aren’t many places in the world where you can still see 100 camels thundering across the desert at full gallop. Al-Jawf, a prosperous oasis north of the Great Nafud Desert in Saudi Arabia, is one. Here each year, during the 'Id al-Adha holidays of Islam, the amir of the area sponsors the Middle Eastern equivalent of an old-fashioned U.S.-style county fair, with a 9.3-mile camel race as the high point in secular observances of the two-day festival. Last fall the occasion drew about 7,000 people from all over northern Arabia, who used every mode of transportation from camels to tank trucks to get there. The environs of al-Jawf briefly took on the appearance of the parking lots at Le Mans, with more than 550 vehicles jammed into what is normally a peaceful desert oasis.
To merchants, of course, this invading horde was a windfall, since the visitors had ample opportunity to compare and acquire handloomed fabrics and rugs, long, cloak-like abas, camel harnesses, and metal and marble work assembled into an immense temporary bazaar. But it was also for Amir 'Abd ar-Rahman as-Sudayri and his son. Deputy Amir Faysal as-Sudayri, a graduate of the University of Arizona, a chance to demonstrate the redevelopment now underway in an area whose original importance goes way back to pre-lslamic times. Then al-Jawf, known as Dumat al-Jandal, was a converging point of three important caravan routes, which automatically made it a vital mercantile center. There are still ruins there of Marid Fortress, which tradition says was built by Duma, son of Ishmael and grandson of Abraham, but the changes are impressive. The as- Sudayris have established a large chicken and egg cooperative, a dairy farm stocked with cows from Holland, a program of orphan care, an extension to the area's previously existing road network, and a sports club which has taken on many community beautification projects.
The camel race was scheduled for 4:30 in the afternoon, way out in the desert between al-Jawf town and Sakaka, the administrative center of the entire oasis region. Shortly before the starting gun was due to be fired the amir and his retinue and throngs of ordinary spectators assembled at the finish line to await the man who out of 129 camel-owners representing most of the Bedouin tribes of northern Arabia, would make it across the finish line first. He turned out to be young Salfiq ibn Jalbakh ibn Hadrus, a member of the Shammar tribe. He covered the distance in precisely 30 minutes.