It sounds like something off one of those segments from the old MTV show “Daria”: “Dromedaries and dermoplasty?! Why these camels are going under the knife for plastic surgery — tonight, on ‘Sick, Sad World’!”
Alas, in Saudi Arabia, it seems whatever reforms Mohammed bin Salman may have been been undertaking involving avarice among his country’s elite haven’t yet made it to the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival.
According to the BBC, the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival sounds like what a state fair would look like in Saudi Arabia if they actually had state fairs and the Tilt-a-Whirl wasn’t probably fatwa’ed by Wahhabist clerics. (This last part is admittedly just a guess.)
The festival includes activities like camel racing and camel milk tasting. Like most things in the Gulf nation, things are a bit more ridiculously opulent: instead of a blue ribbon for the best deep-fried stick of camel’s milk butter, $57 million in prizes are up for grabs.
Now, one-dozen camels have been disqualified from the camel beauty contest (I so wish I were kidding about that and every part of this story, really) due to receiving Botox injections.
I quote from The National out of the United Arab Emirates, because I really don’t think there’s any way I can improve on the accidentally-comedic tenor of this po-faced prose: “What distinguishes a beautiful camel is not just its height, shape and the placement of its hump,” they write. “A full, droopy lip and large features are essential to achieving camel celebrity-status in the multi-million dollar industry of camel pageantry.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be laughing from the safe confines of a nation where “Toddlers and Tiaras” was once a top-ten cable show. However, how must you feel about your career choices when you’ve trained in the writing craft for years, probably gone off to university, get paid to go into work each day, and find yourself typing out the words “achieving camel celebrity-status in the multi-million dollar industry of camel pageantry” on a MacBook keyboard?
Even festival-goers seem to acknowledge that this kind of cheating is de rigueur for dromedary champions.
“They use Botox for the lips, the nose, the upper lips, the lower lips and even the jaw. 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,’” said 31-year-old Ali Al Mazrouei. Al Mazrouei is a regular attendee at camel pageants around the region, being both the son of an Emirati breeder and proof positive that Bertie Wooster types can appear in any time and culture.
According to its website, “The King Abdulaziz Camel Beauty Contest has been eagerly looked forward to each year since they were launched in the year 2000.
“The Contest attracts not only direct participants, including those who make their livelihood from the events, but also those who enjoy the increasing number of activities associated with the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival.”
Attendance increased by a third in recent years, according to Reuters, ever since the festival was moved from a remote desert outpost to a permanent location north of the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
That’s raised the stakes for camel breeders — and much like the Russian track team, or the Russian weightlifting team, or the Russian luge team, that’s made the siren call of cheating that much more attractive.
Ali Obaid, a camel owner and pageant guide, says that there are multifarious ways for camel owners to cheat.
“For example they start to pull the lips of the camel, they pull it by hand like this every day to make it longer,” Obaid said. “Secondly, they use hormones to make it more muscular and Botox makes the head bigger and bigger. Everyone wants to be a winner.”
At the Al Dhafra festival in Abu Dhabi, camel owners are also known to coat their animals in oil to make them look darker.
The whole thing got exposed when, days before the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, Saudi media began reporting on a veterinarian who had not only given camels Botox injections but had also trimmed the ears of the camel. (“Delicate ears are a winning attribute on some Saudi breeds,” that same writer for The National noted, no doubt crafting his resignation letter in the back of his head.)
Alas, for the cheaters, it’s not all fun and games and camel-milk tasting. According to NPR, in addition to being banned from this year’s camel pageant, offenders will also face a five-year ban from future competitions.
So I guess they are a bit like Russian athletes after all. Just not athletes, and with camels.
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