"It's not true. It's a lie. We live with camels, we
drink their milk, we eat their meat. There's no disease. We live and
sleep and spend our whole lives with them and there's nothing," said
Faraj al-Subai'i, a trader at the market.
The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has infected 345
people in the conservative Islamic kingdom since it was identified
two years ago, causing fever, pneumonia and kidney failure in some,
and killing around a third of sufferers.
Although many patients in a recent outbreak in Jeddah appear to have
become infected through person-to-person transmission in hospitals,
MERS has been found in bats and camels, and many experts say the
latter form the most likely animal reservoir from which humans are
Camels occupy a special place in Saudi society, providing a link to
an important but vanishing nomadic tradition and valued at prices
that can climb to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) advised people most at
risk of severe disease to avoid contact with camels and take
precautions when visiting places where the animals are present, and
to avoid drinking raw milk.
Among the pungent animal pens in Riyadh's camel market, stretching
several miles along a highway out of the city, the traders, owners
and camel workers said they had been given no advice, information or
warnings on MERS by government officials.
Even Ehab el-Shabouri, an Egyptian veterinary doctor in one of the
many practices stretching along a nearby road that cater to the
camel owners, said he was unaware that the MERS virus had been found
in the animals.
"If it was related to camels, the Agriculture Ministry would have
taken some measures," he said.
While the link is the subject of extensive study among scientists
outside Saudi Arabia, it has been noticeably absent from much of the
official debate inside the kingdom.
However on Tuesday, acting Saudi health minister Adel Fakieh told a
news conference there has been "consensus in the discussions taking
place over the last two days after the scientific team reviewed
various evidence that it is advised not to get into close contact
with camels, especially sick camels".
He was speaking after meeting foreign experts including from the WHO
who were invited by the government to help investigate MERS. They
have also advised people not to consume raw milk or raw meat
products from camels.
Fakieh was appointed a week ago after the former minister, Abdullah
al-Rabeeah, was replaced following mounting expressions of public
unease and anger on social media at what many Saudis saw as an
inadequate and opaque approach to the outbreak.
The U.S. ally and conservative absolute monarchy allows little
public dissent and is often secretive about subjects seen as
politically sensitive, which analysts speculate encourages the
spread of rumors and mistrust in its public statements.
Unlike his predecessor, Fakieh immediately visited affected
hospitals and was shown on television meeting MERS patients in an
apparent attempt to win back public trust.
MERS is of particular concern given Saudi Arabia's role as host of
Islam's annual haj pilgrimage which attracts millions to the kingdom
each year. Fakieh said very old people, children and those with
chronic diseases should delay their pilgrimage, set for early
October, this year, but that no other restrictions were being
ADMIRATION, AFFECTION AND POETRY
Some infection experts have speculated that local sensitivities over
the reputation of an animal much beloved in the desert kingdom, and
closely bound to its cultural identity, may have caused resistance
to the idea it may be behind the MERS outbreak.
Those experts fear this could hinder preventative measures aimed at
limiting the spread of the disease, which so far appears not to
transmit easily between people, by controlling it at source.
Camels are a common sight in some eastern districts of Riyadh,
grazing on empty plots of land or carted in trucks on major roads.
While they are less prevalent inside some other Saudi cities, such
as Jeddah, they are still often seen on town outskirts.
At once a source of transport, milk and meat, camels were
indispensable to the nomadic life of the Saudi people's Bedouin
forefathers, inspiring admiration, affection and verse after verse
of classical Arabic poetry.
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That nomadic lifestyle is long gone, replaced decades ago by an
urban culture of cars, supermarkets and television, but as Saudis
drift further from their Bedouin roots, many increasingly cherish
values seen as purer and simpler than those of today.
The ownership and love of camels is an integral part of that
nostalgic vision, expressed in races and pageants that attract tens
of thousands of spectators, and in the millions of riyals that
change hands for the fastest or most beautiful animals.
Among the corrugated metal sheds and bumpy roads of Riyadh's camel
market most beasts on sale are far less eminent specimens, said the
traders, but are kept for breeding, for their products including
milk and urine, and eventually for the slaughterhouse.
As a group of men in white Arab robes dispute the merits of the
camels on offer, an auctioneer with a cane touches one tall animal
and opens the bidding at 7,500 riyals ($2,000).
Camel flesh is displayed in the meat section of most Saudi
supermarkets alongside cuts of New Zealand lamb and Irish beef,
while the milk is usually drunk fresh and unpasteurized, and prized
as a healthful panacea.
"We drink the milk ourselves and provide it to our guests. It's
medicine. People come to us for camel milk for their health,
particularly to cure cancer. We all drink it every day and see how
strong we are," said a white-bearded camel trader.
An outraged, high-pitched grunting erupted nearby as a pair of
herders walloped a large beast on its haunches to steer it along the
correct road, past a Bedouin-style black-and-white tent where five
men were kneeling for Islam's afternoon prayer.
Eid al-Rashidi, one of several men from the same tribe who were
buying and selling camels at the auction, said his father and
grandfather had both owned herds and now he has 30 of the animals,
valued from 20,000 to 30,000 riyals each.
He jutted a finger angrily as he declared there could be no MERS
cases among the camels. A small crowd behind him added their voices
in agreement, many of them asking how it could be linked to the
animals if none of the traders had fallen sick.
There were no signposts or other visible warnings around the camel
market to advise people to take extra precautions, such as increased
hand washing or avoiding animal secretions.
Above Rashidi's head, the arm of a small crane swung lazily from
a truck, an adult camel swaying in the harness beneath it,
scattering droppings across the ground before it was carefully
lowered to the sand.
Its owner, Arabic headdress wrapped around his face, leaned down to
undo the harness and the animal sneezed on him.
Viruses among camels may be particularly widespread now, although
there is no indication whether that is the cause of the recent spike
in MERS cases, because the birthing season recently ended and calves
are more prone to picking up the virus.
As bidding for an adult continued, a group of very young camels,
sprouting fluffy blonde curls atop spindly legs, trotted past with a
young Saudi boy scampering behind them and patting them on their
"If it has been confirmed that MERS exists in camels, then we are in
the danger zone as we are playing with fire," said Salman al-Rasheed,
one of the traders.
"But this is not true, because this market has camels from all
regions of the country, sick camels and healthy camels, and we have
never seen MERS among any of us," he added.
(Editing by William Maclean, Kate Kelland and Anna Willard)
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