AFP
Wire Service
3 minute read
9 Jan 2022
5:19 pm

PICS: ‘Ships of the desert’ – Camel beauty pageant debut by Saudi women

AFP

The event, part of the prestigious King Abdelaziz Festival, was previously a men-only affair.

Camels are showcased during the sixth edition of the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in the Rumah region on January 8, 2022. Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine

Saudi women – in a first for the conservative kingdom – paraded their camels in a beauty pageant for the prized “ships of the desert”.

“I hope today to reach a certain social standing, inshallah (God willing),” said Lamia al-Rashidi, 27, who participated at the weekend contest in the Rumah desert northeast of the capital Riyadh.

King Abdelaziz Festival 2022

Event now open to women

The event, part of the prestigious King Abdelaziz Festival, was previously a men-only affair.

camel beauty pageant saudi women
Saudi women parade on horseback during the sixth edition of the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in the Rumah region. Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine

“I’ve been interested in camels ever since I was little,” said Rashidi, whose family owns 40 camels.

“Once this event was opened to women, I decided to participate,” said the young woman, wearing a black face covering and with a colourful shawl over her shoulders.

Camels’ beauty pageant

The top five in the field of about 40 participants in the women’s event went home with total prize money of one million riyals (about $260,000).

The camels’ beauty is judged on several criteria, but the shape and size of the lips, neck and hump are the main attributes.

camel beauty pageant saudi women
The festival introduced a round for women camel owners, allowing them for the first time to showcase their animals. Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine

In December, several participants were disqualified because their animals had undergone botox injections.

In a parade at the event on the red sand track of Rumah, women in black on horseback rode ahead of men in white robes on camels as male musicians, some with swords, danced to the beat of drums.

Restrictions on Saudi women lifted

The oil-rich Gulf state adheres to a rigid interpretation of Islam.

However, since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, some restrictions on women have been lifted as the country opens up with sweeping reforms.

camel beauty pageant saudi women
Saudi cameleers on 8 January 2022. Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine

Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil, investing heavily in the tourism, entertainment and sports sectors.

The shift has enabled women to get behind the wheel and take part in mixed-gender settings, even as a rigorous crackdown on dissent remains in place.

“Women have always been an integral part of Bedouin society. They owned and looked after camels,” said Mohammed al-Harbi, a manager of the festival.

camel beauty pageant saudi women
Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine

‘Historical heritage’ of Saudi Arabia

Women’s participation was in keeping with “the historical heritage” of Saudi Arabia, he told AFP.

Munira al-Mishkhas, another participant, chimed in: “Camels have been a part of us for a long time, but staging a contest for us (women) is a big step forward.”

At just seven years old, Malath bint Enad was the youngest contestant and her animal won third prize.

camel beauty pageant saudi women
Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine

Her proud father, a 35-year-old camel dealer who said he owns more than 200 beasts, was very pleased with the entrance of women.

“This will increase enthusiasm for the festival and increase the value of the camels,” said Enad bin Sultan, clad in traditional costume and red-and-white keffiyeh headdress.

The 40-day festival, which kicked off last month, is an annual Bedouin event that lures breeders from across the Gulf with total prize money of up to $66 million.

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Haitham El-Tabei © Agence France-Presse