Inside Saudi’s camel beauty pageant

Forget Miss Great Britain. There’s a whole new festival in town, one that swaps beauty queens for beautiful camels, throws in thousands of pounds of prize money, lasts an entire month and even comes with its own share of botox scandal. The only catch? You’ll need to travel to al-Dahna (around a 90 minutes drive outside Riyadh in Saudi Arabia) to watch it. 

Say hello to the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival. This year, the massive 30-day event drew more than 30,000 camels and 600,000 spectators. I was one of them. 

Just days before I arrive, the camel festival made international news when 12 camels were disqualified after receiving lip-plumping botox injections. Camels are judged on the shape of their nose, their height, colour, ear size (the smaller the better), and even the fullness of their mouths. 

When asked about the scandal, an official jokingly responds: “Women know more about botox than men.” Then, more seriously: “We found some people do [botox] to their camels, and we banned them for five years. It was just 12 camels from the 26,000 who come.” 

Now there’s a three-step process involving vets and camel experts to ensure no beauty beast gets a botox bias, says Dr Fahd bin Abdullah al-Sammari, general supervisor of the King Abdulaziz Foundation.

“In any sport, you have the use of injections. [It’s the] same thing with camels. People try to make them better and to convince the judges they are better,” says Dr Fahd. “This should not be done.” 

Camel racing is another huge attraction. This year the festival rolled out a brand new 8km (five-mile) racing track, one that accommodates 100 camels and 200 cars. The latter is important; owners pile into 4x4s and drive alongside their racing camels as the animals compete, wheels spinning clouds of dust in their wake. Visitors can watch from the stands, where there’s a dedicated women-only section. 

And with 6,120 camels participating in the races in 2018, the festival set a new Guinness World Record. 

When not rooting for the most beautiful camel or cheering along the fastest ones, there’s plenty of other live entertainment. Expect camel hair art, camel sand art, a museum featuring the journey of the camel from mummy to modernity, vendors hawking dates, an enclosure with rare camels on show, and a few food trucks selling camel burgers. 

“The camel is a symbol of Saudi Arabia,” says Fawzan al-Madi, chief judge of the show. “We used to preserve it out of necessity, now we preserve it as a pastime.” 

More information

Saudi Arabia’s visa scene is changing – it’s just hard to say exactly how. There are plans for a dedicated tourist visa that allows single entry for 30 days, and also allows women over 25 years old to visit when in certain groups. This should roll out soon. It’s best to check the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice before booking. If your heart’s set on the camel festival, organisers recommend you email them for assistance.

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