Illustration: A beautiful camel takes first prize as men accept bribes in the background

As Saudi’s crackdown on corruption continues, even camel beauty pageants aren’t safe

In Saudi Arabia, the Miss Camel Beauty Contest is a cultural institution. It is the equivalent of Crufts for the shining jewel of the Middle East and people take it very seriously. Personally, I'm not so sure that a camel is even an attractive creature in the first place, let alone good-looking enough to have a pageant devoted to it. But in Saudi Arabia, it's a different matter. Here, camels are considered the ships of the desert and symbols of the nation. The show's chief judge has even stated: "We used to preserve [the camel] out of necessity, now we preserve it as a pastime."

Indeed, his last word on the subject is particularly telling. Camel pageants used to be the pursuit of Bedouin tribesmen; now they've become a high-stakes sport for the nouveau riche who have attained unbelievable wealth through oil. However, like many parts of Saudi culture, even this beloved pastime has been subject to cheating and corruption. This month, the Miss Camel competition hit a hump, and 12 of the entrants were disqualified after it discovered that their owners had been cheating in a very bizarre way.

A Saudi boy with a camel Credit: Getty

It turned out that some of the camels had actually received Botox injections to enhance their looks before they stood in front of the panel of judges. According to UAE newspaper The National, a clinic was not only providing fillers for the animals, but was also surgically reducing the size of their ears and stretching their lips to make them conform to breeder's high standards.

Ali Al Mazrouei, the son of a prominent Emirati breeder, told reporters: "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 that head is. It has big lips, a big nose.'" Camel owner Ali Obaid concurred, stating: "They start to pull the lips of the camel, they pull it by hand like this every day to make it longer Secondly, they use hormones to make it more muscular and Botox makes the head bigger and bigger. Everyone wants to be a winner."

Everybody wants to be a winner. That's a statement that seems to sum up the attitude of this newly-minted global power. Saudi Arabia is a land where the gulf between rich and poor is wider than their arid desert canyons and where the majority of available cash has been hoarded by a powerful oligarchy. Yet it's also a place where millionaires are almost commonplace and vast fortunes can be secured overnight. Indeed, in the Miss Camel pageant, which has been running since 2000, $57 million can be awarded to the winner of the contest and camel races. No wonder cheating is such a problem.

The month-long festival is typically held in Rumah, approximately 160 kilometres to the east of the capital city of Riyadh, and this year around 300,000 people made the 90-minute journey to witness the animals strut their stuff. The event features a range of sights, including market stalls for food, gift shops, and a petting zoo which is proud to feature the world’s tallest and shortest camels. There's even a pop-up museum, which details the history of the Saudi's relationship with the beast of burden, as well as tents where visitors can sample camel's milk and an incredible planetarium which teaches tourists how Arabs were guided by the heavens when riding their humped mounts through the dunes.

Saudi Arabian city at night. Credit: Pixabay/Apriltan18

The competition's guidelines are extremely strict in order to prevent swindling; take a look and you can even stumble across informative graphics about how to beautify camels, even offering a helpful diagram entitled Standards of Camel Beauty. The rules even clearly state: "In case of fraud to change the natural form of participating camels, the participant shall be excluded immediately." Those found guilty of cheating are banned from the contest and can also incur further legal penalties.

The fight against cheating is an emerging theme in Arabian current affairs. Last year saw a number of prominent Saudi officials and members of the aristocracy prosecuted on charges of corruption, following the creation of a special committee led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. One of the suspects, who was allegedly interrogated at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, was Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, whose combined assets are estimated to stand at $18 billion - making him Saudi Arabia's richest businessman.

An image of a camel. Credit: Pixabay/Paulbr75

Around 500 people have been rounded up and detained on charges of money laundering, bribery and extorting officials, and the authorities have frozen around 2,000 accounts. Other arrested aristocrats include Prince Fahd bin Abdullah, the former deputy defence minister, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, former head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former governor of the Riyadh Province, and Prince Turki bin Nasser Al Saud. Many others still remain unaccounted for. Prince Mohammad has also pledged to tackle issues of religious extremism and Islamic fundamentalism; on 24 October, he told investors in Riyadh: "We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world."

However, critics have accused this initiative of being little better than a ruthless political purge. Opposition sources in Saudi Arabia have claimed that the detainees, along with those captured at the hotel, were interrogated and tortured and forced to sign over their estate to be released. Prince Alwaleed could be forced to relinquish control of Kingdom Holding Co., which owns prominent stakes in corporations such as Citigroup Inc. and Twitter.

Two Saudi men standing next to a camel Credit: Pixabay/Inde

However, when confronted with the accusation that these arrests were actually a cover-up for a power grab, the crown prince stated that the idea was “ludicrous" and claimed that when his father was crowned in 2015, he concluded that corruption was impeding economic growth and asked Prince Mohammad to spearhead the campaign against it. However, the 31-year-old's rise to power has seen him gain greater control over the media and the regime has been less tolerant towards dissenters.The scandal surrounding the camel show highlights a society where transparency and fair play is being demanded and punishments are being doled out for those who aren't obeying the rules. The competition's head judge Fawzan al-Madi has claimed that "Only people who have the financial ability can compete on the rare and beautiful camels," but it seems as though that attitude is going to change.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu