AL-RUMAHIYA, Saudi Arabia–The dromedaries paraded down a dusty racetrack as judges rated the size of their lips, cheeks, heads and knees. Crowds of men watched from the bleachers, hooting when the camel representing their own tribe loped down the track.
A dozen camels have been disqualified from this year’s Saudi “camel beauty contest” because their handlers used Botox to make them more “handsome.”
While there is no clear consensus on the features that make a camel more “handsome,” some handlers have been known to seek procedures for their animals in a bid to emphasis the physical features they think will win appeal to buyers, reported the UAE’s The National.
“For example they start to pull the lips of the camel, they pull it by hand like this every day to make it longer,” one camel owner, Ali Obaid, explained to the newspaper. “Secondly, they use hormones to make it more muscular and Botox makes the head bigger and bigger. Everyone wants to be a winner.”
That’s because real money is to be claimed: a total of 213 million riyals (US$57 million) in prize money is awarded to the winners of the beauty contests and camel races, reported The National.
But the contest is well regulated to protect animal welfare. Violators of the regulations on age, breeding, teething, as well as “fraud to change the natural form of participating camels” are banned from the year’s contests as well as the following five sessions of the festival. They also face possible legal penalties for violating the kingdom’s animal welfare laws.
“The camel,” explained the chief judge of the show, Fawzan al-Madi, “is a symbol of Saudi Arabia. We used to preserve it out of necessity, now we preserve it as a pastime.”
Much is changing in Saudi Arabia since new reforms, attributed to the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were introduced in the deeply conservative Muslim Kingdom. The country is getting its first movie theaters. Soon women will be permitted to drive. The authorities eventually hope to diversify the economy away from the oil that has been its lifeblood for decades.
But as they seek to transform the kingdom, the Saudi authorities are trying to smooth the path for reform by emphasizing traditional aspects of their culture. And for the Bedouin of Arabia, nothing is more essential than the camel, used for centuries for food, transport, as a war machine and companion.
So, the authorities have ramped up the country’s annual month-long camel festival, which was relocated last year from the remote desert to the outskirts of the capital. On a rocky desert plateau, the government has erected a permanent venue to host the headline events: races and show competitions with the 213 million riyals total prize money.
The pavilion features an auction where top camels can fetch millions of riyals.
There are food stalls and souvenir shops, a petting zoo featuring the world’s tallest and shortest camels, a museum with life-size sand sculptures of camels, tents for tasting camel’s milk and viewing camel-hair textiles, and a planetarium showing how Arabs rode camels through the desert guided by the stars.
Organizers say this “heritage village” will expand in coming years as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who is heir to the throne, defense minister and head of oil and economic policy – takes the reins through a newly-created official Camel Club established by royal decree last year.
Halfway through this year’s festival, attendance is up about a third from last year, with about 300,000 people making the 1.5 hour trip from Riyadh so far, said Fahd al-Semmari, a Camel Club board member.
“The vision is for the (festival) to become a global, pioneering forum for all classes of people to come for entertainment, knowledge and competition.”
By Stephen Kalin
Additional reporting by Melanie Sun