Camel Beauty Pageants


Ten thousand of the world’s finest pedigree camels are competing for $9 million in prize money.
Even though camel breeding is a cultural tradition that goes back centuries, the oil-rich Arab emirate had produced the world’s first test-tube camel and races have recently been conducted using remote-controlled robot riders.

“It’s just like judging a beautiful girl,” said Fowzan al-Madr, a camel breeder from the Kharj region southeast of Riyadh. “You look for big…eyes, long lashes and a long neck — maybe 39 or 40 inches.”As he spoke, Madr was surveying the offerings at Saudi Arabia’s largest camel market, on the outskirts of Riyadh.

The days are long past when camels were crucial to life, a chapter lost in increasing urbanization and technology. But there is still pleasure in raising them, sometimes for milk and meat, for racing and, yes, for their beauty.

Camel beauty pageants, in which camels are judged on their looks and dressage, are held all over Saudi Arabia. They have become so popular in recent years that a respected Saudi cleric recently issued a decree against them, saying that they encouraged pride.

The death in January of Mashoufan — a male camel who earned celebrity status after winning first prize in a number of pageants and was said to be worth more than $4.5 million — was widely reported, and his owner received condolences from around the country.

Camel breeding is a multimillion-dollar industry in Saudi Arabia, and late winter is an especially popular time for wealthy Saudi camel owners to arrange parties in the desert to spend time with their favorite camels.

Ali bin Talal al-Johany, a former minister of telecommunications, owns a herd of 124 camels and keeps a large framed photograph of his prized bull, Musfer, in his home. He explained that because Saudi Arabia has developed so quickly, camels had a great deal of symbolism for older Saudis and owning them was a pleasurable way to feel connected with the past.

At the market, thousands of camels of every description are for sale. In addition to pure white camels, there are woolly black camels and oatmeal-colored camels, even camels of the color that, in a winter coat, is called “camel-colored.”

In one enclosure, camels marked for slaughter with splashes of hot-pink spray paint on their sides, exactly one year old and ready for eating, bellow mournfully as they are hobbled and forced to kneel in the back of a pickup.

Last August, the timeless routines of the souq al-jamal were shattered when camels began dying in droves, until as many as 5,000 died under unexplained circumstances. Madr, the camel breeder, lost seven, all apparently healthy young animals.

An investigation revealed the camels had been poisoned by fodder contaminated with an antibiotic called salinomycin, often added to chicken feed but poisonous to camels. A mill had tried to double production of camel fodder by using a factory line normally devoted to chicken feed.

Last month, King Abdullah ordered payments of 20,000 riyals, about $5,330 for every camel that died from eating the contaminated feed.




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