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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Awafi Desert Festival, United Arab Emirates


RAS AL KHAIMAH // Neither the heavy rain nor the flashes of lightning above Awafi’s famous red dunes could keep the visitors from around the Gulf from their annual dose of petrol, metal and sand.Hundreds turned out in yesterday’s inclement weather to watch vehicles churn through the dunes at the end of the opening week of the Awafi Desert Festival.One group of men, wearing kanduras and brown leather jackets, huddled under the hood of a Honda watching a video on a mobile phone of a man performing wheelies.
“That’s me,” said Sulayman al Shuroomi, the two-time drifting and wheelie champion. Al Shuroomi was hoping for another title on the tarmac track at the Awafi Desert Festival this year but confessed that these days he had more fun on the dunes.Throughout the week, children, teenagers and the young at heart have bounced over quad-bike trails and cruised over crushed sand.Families gathered in the evening to picnic, play and shop in Awafi’s outdoor bazaar under the desert stars.
The RAK government hopes to attract thousands of tourists by marketing the three-week festival as one of the region’s top desert carnivals.For RAK residents, the sixth annual festival that started on Jan 16, is an opportunity to compete against some of the Gulf’s top desert drivers.Motorists practise on the dunes all year, building their reputations, skill and courage to compete. Garages across the UAE select drivers and enter customised vehicles.
Off-road competitions drew the largest crowds. Spectators cheered as they watched customised lorries churn through Awafi’s dunes and try to blaze up its infamous 70-degree, 90-metre dune.Forty-three lorries competed for the honour of fastest time and more than Dh100,000 (US$27,200) in prize money for the competition’s eight- and six-cylinder categories. The lorries had two chances to reach the top of the dune from its base. Only two were successful. Veteran competitors and rookies alike spent up to Dh100,000 to replace their engines and customise their vehicles, often leaving little more than the original frame intact.
“For a little playing here, people spend about Dh15,000 to Dh20,000,” says Abdulla al Hebsi, 22, who taught himself to drive on Awafi’s dunes seven years ago.“But if you want to join with them in the games, it’s at least Dh50,000. Just to put in the engine is Dh30,000. There is no time here. During the Awafi Festival people come 24 hours a day. People drive all day, all night.”At night, the festival takes on a carnival atmosphere. Trees are draped in garlands of lights; temporary coffee shops and shisha cafes line a busy road.
Every evening the sand bowl is filled with hundreds of lorries racing each other up slopes, spitting sand. Some snake up backwards. In bad weather, the quad bikes disappear but small cars come to test the hardened sand as police watch closely from the top of each sand dune.This year, the Awafi Desert Festival highlights Emirati heritage. A new colosseum-style stage set amid the dunes will host some of the Gulf’s celebrity entertainers, including Emirati singers, vocalists and comedians from Bahrain, and a Kuwaiti theatre troupe.
Every weekend, quizzes on UAE culture will draw crowds at Awafi’s traditional village.“Awafi has something special,” said Hamad al Shamsi, a member of the Festival Organising Committee and deputy general director of the RAK Department of Economic Development. “In Awafi, it’s natural, it’s a kind of freedom. People can do what they want. They can camp, they can drive around. People feel more comfortable.”
Sheikh Faisal bin Saqr, the chairman of the RAK Financial Department and head of the Festival Organising Committee, said: “Awafi was unknown before. People used to go and camp there so the government decided to promote this. Since then, the government has attracted more and more people from abroad.”Obaid al Zaabi, a retired teacher, plans to attend the festival each day to relax with friends in their tent overlooking the desert.
“People have been coming here for more than 20 years. Today people come from Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Al Ain, from all of the Gulf. Young people, old people ... all are coming.”

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