RIYADH - The 40-odd men gathered in a sandy, dung-scattered auction pen at one of Saudi Arabia’s largest camel markets were fiercely dismissive of a link scientists have found between the animals and an often fatal virus in humans.
“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 becoming infected.
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 imposed.
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.
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 backs.
“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