Yes, There's A Beauty Contest For Camels — & It's Rife With Controversy

Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images.
Awards-show season is in full swing in the United States, with Oscar nominees receiving their fateful phone calls yesterday and the biggest names in the music world gearing up for the Grammys this coming weekend. But in Saudi Arabia, it's not celebrities they're, er, celebrating with a month-long fête: It's camels. The country's second annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival is currently underway and, along with races and auctions for buyers and sellers, around 30,000 camels have been entered into its high-stakes beauty contest, where prize money totals 213 million riyals (roughly $57 million USD). "The camel is a symbol of Saudi Arabia," explained the show's chief judge, Fawzan al-Madi, of the tradition. "We used to preserve it out of necessity, now we preserve it as a pastime."
But in the midst of the celebration, a scandal has taken hold. Reuters reports that a dozen camels have been disqualified from the competition due to suspicion that their handlers used Botox and collagen fillers in order to enhance the animals' most desirable features as dictated by the official beauty standards. "They use Botox for the lips, the nose, the upper lips, the lower lips, and even the jaw," Ali al-Mazrouei, whose father is one of the United Arab Emirates' top camel breeders, told The National. "It makes the head more inflated, so when the camel comes, it’s like, 'Oh, look at how big that head is. It has big lips, a big nose.'"
Camel pageantry, believe it or not, is a multi-million dollar industry in Saudi Arabia, and attendees are concerned that a camel could win a large purse or be sold to a buyer for an exorbitant price, only for the injectables to wear off and its features to go back to normal — rather than prize-winning — months later. Not only is the practice far from humane, but in a culture where camels have been essential for food, transport, and companionship for centuries (and also treated as entertainment, which is controversial in its own right), this kind of deception is practically criminal. Many in the trade want cheaters to be punished as severely as those who give performance-enhancing drugs to a racing camel, especially as the festival grows. (About 300,000 people attendees have made their way to the venue on the outskirts of the country's capital so far, up a third from last year since heir-to-the-throne Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman established the official Camel Club by royal decree.)
"The people who are just in the camel competition to make it more valuable, they are cheating everyone," al-Mazrouei said. "A fine should be applied. In camel racing, whoever is using drugs is fined," but aside from being ousted from the beauty contest, there's no legal consequence for cheating in place. Camel owner and pageant guide Ali Obaid told The National that swindlers will also use hormones to make their beauty camels more muscular, while Botox makes the head appear larger and more pronounced. Saudi media outlets reported that a veterinarian was caught not only using injectables, but even performing plastic surgery to create smaller, more delicate ears. "Everyone wants to be a winner," Obaid said — at any cost.
It goes without saying that forcing anyone or anything, ungulate or otherwise, to undergo cosmetic surgery without consent (or, alternatively, medical necessity) is cruel... and camels definitely don't have a say in this matter, nor the executive function to vet their plastic surgeon to ensure they're licensed and qualified. The toxic stage parents of the camel world might not have CPS on their tails, but according to The National, judges do have a word of warning for those who dare defy the rules: "Before winners are announced, owners must swear on the Quran about a camel's age and ownership. Whatever tactics employed to con judges, owners are reminded that while breeders may be judging the camels, God is judging them." Someone get Sandra Bullock on the line — there's a pageant catastrophe that needs to be stopped.

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