The metal turnstiles grind open and 24 humped beasts begin their parade from the milking pen into the sprawling Al Ain desert.
Moments later, a second herd takes its place, and so it continues until every last camel has been milked and the march starts once again.
The milking process at Al Ain Farms camel dairy is a well-oiled machine. Impatient hoofing aside, the resident beasts know the drill, and so they should, with each of them being milked three times a day. In total, the 3,200 camels that live here produce around 2 million liters of milk per year, which is sold locally to residents and businesses, as well as being exported to China, the US and parts of Europe, where it is increasingly coveted for its health benefits.
“The ubiquitous desert animal is a wonder in its own merit,” says Al Ain Farms CEO Hassan Safi. “Perfectly adapted to life in the arid deserts, camels have been providing not just transportation but nourishment, comfort and occasionally food to mankind since ancient times.
“They occupy a special place in Arab culture and the Camel Dairy at Al Ain Farms enjoys a pride of place in the UAE.”
Back in the milking parlor, eight men in matching hairnets and wellington boots disinfect udders and attach four-pronged milking clusters. A computerized screen then totals up the yield, which is usually around three liters for each camel. In a matter of minutes, they’re on their merry way, empty udders swinging.
In the surrounding desert, the animals mill about in groups, chewing on straw and basking in the Al Ain sunshine. Aside from thousands of adult camels, another 700 bandy-legged babies totter behind their mothers with their fluffy hair blowing in the wind, just as they have done in these parts for thousands of years.
The evolution of camel milk
Long before camel milk was commercialized, Bedouins relied on it for their daily sustenance. Known as the “white gold of the desert”, the tribes swore by its nourishing properties, crediting it for their vigor and vitality in the harsh desert landscape. The sudden growth of the nation saw demand for new products and in 1981, fresh cow’s milk was introduced to the region, when the farm was founded by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Commercial camel milk production followed in 2001 with the farm’s Camelait brand, and today the dairy is part of one of the biggest camel farms in the UAE.
“Camel milk was traditionally consumed in many countries in Africa and Asia, particularly during the dry season, because camels are well adapted to harsh conditions,” says Safi.
“Interest in camel milk started to grow in the last 20 years thanks to efforts of the UAE government and local industry to make camel milk a signature food for the region and UAE due to its many benefits it carries.”
Today, Safi estimates around 1,500 tonnes of camel milk is produced annually, with the UAE playing a huge part in its global marketing.
“In the United Arab Emirates, pasteurized camel milk is regularly sold across the country in many forms including fresh milk, flavored milk, milk powder, ghee and drinking yogurt, and it is exported worldwide,” says Safi. “Consumer awareness and knowledge are key in determining the decision to consume any product.
“The efforts made by Al Ain Farms in the last couple of years are focused on spreading awareness, investing in research and reaching consumers when demand can be built upon and there is the appeal to try the camel milk products, especially in Asian countries.”
According to Safi, camel milk has limited availability due to space issues and long gestation periods.
“Camel milk is available in many forms from fresh to powder to derivatives, however, the production can only occur where camels can live in their natural habitat, as they need a lot of space to roam freely,” says Safi.
“Also, camels take much more time to yield milk than cows. Cows mature early and start giving milk from the age of two, while it takes six years for camels to milk yielding maturity.
“Finally, the gestation period for camels is 13 months and a calf is born once every two to three years. The time commitment, effort and operations involved in producing camel milk commercially makes it a very rare and highly coveted delicacy.”
The future of camel milk
Most of the camel milk from Al Ain Farms is purchased by local Emiratis or health food shoppers from further afield, and international demand is continuing to grow.
“Since 2018, we’ve been exporting to the US, China and parts of Europe,” says Dr Abdelaziz Sanad Awad, a vet and production manager at Al Ain Camel Farm.
“There’s been a lot of research into camel’s milk, which has found benefits for treating autism and diabetes, as well as improving immunity.
“In recent years demand has really grown a lot. More people than ever before are invested in their health and wellbeing and are turning to camel milk for its medicinal benefits.”
As the camel milk trend builds momentum, Al Ain Farms is expanding its offerings to include coffee sticks, which add flavors including cinnamon and cardamom to your morning brew. And, this is just the beginning for Safi and his team.
“Shortly, the company will be introducing a new range of camel milk products in its innovation platforms, to further boost and promote the benefits of the natural superfood — camel milk,” he says.
“In 2023, Al Ain Farms will also introduce glass bottle packaging for fresh milk to further communicate its premium positioning and contribute to the sustainability of the industry.”
Where can I try it?
The Camelait range from Al Ain Farms is available to buy from supermarkets and online retailers across the UAE with both fresh and powdered options available. Learn more about the products and the farm at alainfarms.com
Camelicious is another camel dairy in the Dubai desert, offering products ranging from flavored milk to ice cream and camel lattes. Products can be ordered at camelicious.ae or picked up in supermarkets around the country.
Launched in 2017 by two French residents, NOUQ is a camel milk ice cream brand with 10 flavors including chocolate chip, French vanilla and Emirati date. The best-selling honey saffron variety pays homage to one the region’s most beloved spices, while the baklava flavor offers a sweet taste of the Levant. The gelato is available for delivery across the UAE and can be ordered at nouq.ae.
The Majlis in Dubai Mall serves up a range of camel milk beverages, as well as camel milk chocolates, camel milk-infused cakes and camel milk ice cream. Try a cappuccino for a sweet and salty caffeine hit or go straight for a scoop of the cold stuff if you’re feeling brave.
Al Nassma Camel Milk Chocolate Shop:
Al Nassma Camel Milk Chocolate Shop in Dubai’s Umm Nahad sells a range of milk and dark gourmet chocolates made out of camel milk, plus camel milk bars studded with almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios. Don’t miss dates dipped in camel milk chocolate and stuffed with nuts for a tasty nod to the UAE’s heritage.