Welcome to Miss Camel 2018: A multi-million dollar beauty contest for royalty
It's a multi-million dollar beauty contest where participants are judged on very strict parameters. These include the size of their noses, the shape of their lips, the length of their necks and eyelashes. There are extra points for temperament, and oh, yes, the roundness and positioning of the hump.
Welcome to Miss Camel 2018, better known as the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival. Where some 30,000 camels, white, black, brown and all shades in between, gathered to participate not just in beauty contests and races with prize money worth a whopping 57 million US dollars, but also in a month-long carnival, which celebrates their life, heritage and iconic relationship with the sands of Arabia.
Apart from celebrating the camel, the festival aims to promote tourism and reinforce a sense of pride in an animal inexorably linked to the orthodox nation slowly inching towards change.
A planetarium of camels
Originally started in 1999 by some local Bedouins as a competition for the most beautiful camel, the increasingly popular event caught the attention of other camel owners in the Gulf andArab states as well as the Saudi government, which started funding and promoting it.
And, last year, it was formally re-christened after the Kingdom’s founder, the former King Ibn Saud, officially addressed by his complete name (take a deep breath!): Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud.
The sprawling camel village of Al-Dahna, in the middle of the desert, some 120 km from Riyadh, will now host the festival every year from January 1 to February 1. With camel paddocks capable of holding over 50,000 animals, air-conditioned luxury accommodation for owners, trainers, vets and guests, seven racecourses and tracks capable of racing 100 camels and 200 accompanying cars at a time, parking for thousands of high-end cars and caravans and helipads for visiting royalty, this is the planet’s largest dromedary event.
Apart from the beauty, obedience and racing competitions, there’s the Sanam exhibition, which traces the history of the camel, from its presence in religious texts to the desert caravans of modern times, a Heritage Market with camel products and a state of the art Panoramic Dome, which is like a planetarium with the camel as the star.
Camels on Botox & drugs
With the official patronage of King Selman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, money is not an issue. “It took us only six months to build this massive complex in the middle of the desert,” boasts an organiser.
But the huge sums of prize money bring their own set of problems. What began as a natural beauty contest is today marred by the bane of Botox and the damnation of doping. Some 14 camels were disqualified from the beauty contest, and their owners barred for life, after judges discovered that the animals had been shot full of Botox to enhance their pouts. Random blood tests revealed that other racing camels had been injected with performance enhancing drugs, leading to stringent medical tests for all participating animals, and huge penalties for violators.
But as a local vet and camel expert pointed out, it becomes difficult — though not impossible — to detect animals which have been injected with extra blood to enhance their endurance. Or size: there is, after all, a massive prize for the tallest animal.
“Some breeders cannot afford to buy expensive camels. So they buy cheap, not-so-good-looking camels and try to beautify them artificially. We’re cracking down on such fraud,” Abdullah bin Naser al-Dagheri, one of the judges, told a local newspaper reporter, as he furiously scribbled notes standing on a track surrounded by camels and littered with camel dung.
Under a watchful eye
The organisers are justifiably proud of the fact that more than 300,000 people attended the festival this year, a sizeable increase from the first event.
But on the cold morning of February 1, the final day of the event, camels vastly outnumbered the visitors. Of the less than 20,000 people present, more than half were security men, bristling with guns and walkie talkies of various shapes and sizes. The others comprised caterers, support staff, camel owners and teams, and a handful of journalists.
Sniper teams took position on the roof of the stands overlooking the tracks, and military helicopters buzzed overhead as soldiers from various crack regiments including the Royal Guards kept a watchful eye on the gathering. King Salman was coming as the chief guest.
And apart from his royal entourage, which included his recently named successor Mohammad Bin Salman, his guests included the King of Bahrain, the crown princes of Dubai and Kuwait, and Oman’s minister of sports affairs, among others.
After watching two races during which excited commentators waxed poetic, and patiently listening to famous poets extolling the virtues of the camel, King Salman handed out the prizes, several of which went to Presidency Camels, owned by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE. Others included royalty from Bahrain and of course, Saudi Arabia. To finish off, there was a theatrical performance on the track titled Camel, our World and the traditional “Ardha” sword dance, cheered lustily by the crowd, as exhausted camels looked on.
From being the hardy ship of the desert, capable of trudging for weeks without water or food through the hot sands and freezing nights, to pouting and pirouetting for a beauty contest, the camel sure has come a long way. And, so has Saudi Arabia.
For centuries, children, some as young as two, were used as jockeys for camel races. Since the Arabs did not want to use their own children for this, they kidnapped children from poor families in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan. These children lived on camel farms, and were tied to the camels during the races. Ill-treated, abused and deliberately underfed to keep their weight low, several died before they were five. Child jockeys were officially banned in 2002 following international outrage, but reports of them being used in local races came in as late as 2010. For big ticket events like the King AbdulAziz camel festival, however, children have been replaced by tiny remote controlled robots, which can whip the camel and also issue commands over a speaker. Which is why a convoy of cars follow the race in a parallel outside track, which have the trainers and/or owners using their remotes to control these robots driving their camels. While there are some sophisticated robots available in the market, most are just strung together from small drills and walkie talkies in order to keep them cheap, and their weight low.
HOW TO WIN A CAMEL BEAUTY CONTEST
A dozen camels entered for the beauty contest King Abdulaziz Camel Festival were kicked out for receiving botox injections in January. Luscious lips that cover the teeth, ‘delicate’ ears and the shape and size of the head and other areas are among the 50 or more parameters on which a camel’s beauty is judged. “They use Botox for the lips, the nose, the upper lips, the lower lips and even the jaw,” The National, a UAE newspaper, quoted Ali Al Mazrouei, 31, son of a top Emirati breeder, as saying. “It makes the head more inflated, so when the camel comes it’s like, ‘Oh look at how big is that head is. It has big lips, a big nose’.” Cheaters are creative, Ali Obaid, a camel owner and pageant guide from Medinat Zayed, was quoted as saying. “For example, they start to pull the lips of the camel, they pull it by hand like this every day to make it longer. Secondly, they use hormones to make it more muscular and Botox makes the head bigger and bigger. Everyone wants to be a winner.”
The writer was in Saudi Arabia by invitation from the organisers of The Second King Abdulaziz Camel Festival.