Huddled together on a dusty racetrack, Saudi judges scrutinise pouty lips and shapely humps in a high-stakes camel beauty pageant mired in scandal after botox and cosmetic fillers were detected.
Some 14 camels have been disqualified from the month-long King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, an annual bedouin tradition supported by the Saudi royal family that lures breeders from around the Gulf with prize money of up to $57 million (46 million euros).
Organisers of the festival — with 30,000 participating camels — are cracking down on cosmetic enhancements, a malpractice that has thrived amid stiff competition and despite strong penalties as some stake millions on acquiring top breeds.
“Some breeders cannot afford to buy expensive camels,” said Abdullah bin Naser al-Dagheri, one of the judges, scribbling scores on sheafs of papers as he stood on tracks littered with camel droppings.
“They buy cheap, not so good-looking camels and try to beautify them artificially. We’re cracking down on such fraud.”
Droopy lips, a tall neck and a perfectly placed hump are all winning attributes in camel pageantry.
– Lure of lucre –
The lure of cash prizes and the prestige of winning propels some to tweak the natural look of camels, an offence that could get the animals banned from the competition for three to five years.
Days before the festival began, Saudi authorities caught one vet performing plastic surgery on camels, media reported, prompting furious calls for new penalties on cheats.
Camels were given botox injections at his clinic and some went under the knife to make their ears more perky, also considered a winning trait.
“Cheating is inevitable — even in a contest about beauty,” said chief judge Fawzan al-Madi.
“It is prevalent just like any other animal sport such as horse racing where steroids have found their way.”
Madi added that specialised vets and a team from the agriculture ministry had been deployed to catch violations, which include beauty products such as oils, anaesthetic creams and fillers.
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of historic social and economic change as it seeks to leapfrog into a modern, post-oil era.
Women will be allowed to drive from June, and the ultra-conservative kingdom is gearing up to reopen cinemas for the first time in decades.
But simultaneously it is also seeking to preserve its bedouin traditions and cultural heritage.
– Pride before profit –
“Camels are a symbol of the Arabian peninsula, a symbol of Saudi Arabia,” Madi said.
“They are our pride.”
Thousands of visitors have attended this year’s festival, which last year relocated from the remote desert to Al-Rumhiya on the outskirts of the capital Riyadh.
The spectator stands erupted in whistles and howls as camels strode down the racetrack, their humps draped in golden belts adorned with tassels and bells.
Revellers waved makeshift flags, mounting their chequered headgear on sticks as camels representing their tribes appeared.
The festival, which ends with a closing ceremony presided over by King Salman on February 1, also features camel racing and milk tasting, as well as a petting zoo featuring the world’s tallest camel which stands at nearly three metres (10 feet).
Desert storms frequently interrupt the festival, forcing VIP visitors inside luxury air-conditioned tents offering sugary pastries, Arabic coffee and dried fruit.
The spirit of the festival should not be overshadowed by some cases of cheating, said camel owner Howashel al-Dosary, displaying to AFP the most expensive among his flock of 100 camels, worth five million riyals ($1.3 million).
“If I catch a cheat I will tell him: ‘May God never help you! I don’t want to see your face again.'”
“Our pride is more important than profit.”