Saudi Arabia has for generations

been one of the hardest
countries on earth to visit Now, an increasing number
of foreign visitors including press are being allowed
into the country. That’s why we were invited to the
2018 King Abdulaziz Camel Festival

outside the capital, Riyadh.

Camels, hold a very special place
in Saudi Arabia’s heart. They have been used for centuries
as transportation, food,

even as currency.

This annual, month-long celebration
of everything camel is a chance to see and be seen
for the country’s elite. I’m at a camel festival,
which is celebrating all things past

and I’m walking on a red carpet

because this event
has some very special guests. The King’s here and I think that
portrays a lot about how Saudi Arabia’s feeling
about its identity.

This is a time of massive flux.

Saudi Arabia is going to
adapt from the closed

conservative place it’s known as.

Its plan is to do that by 2030

and people can be
nervous about change. And so, how better to deal with that
then to remind yourself of your roots, your regional identity
and celebrate the camel. For many, the biggest draw
at the festival is the racing. Over the course of a month,
8,000 camels will race

for millions of dollars in prizes.

The sun has just risen
on the desert this morning. So the temperature is pretty
unforgiving, but we’re down here super early because this is when
all the camel racing kicks off. Arabian camel racing has been
around since the seventh century, but has grown in popularity in recent
years due to the huge prizes on offer. Earning the sport comparisons
to horse racing. World leaders and dignitaries
enter their prized beasts. But, unlike horse racing, which
maxes out at 2.4 kilometers, camel racing plays out on an epic
eight kilometer track

in the middle of the desert.

There’s also another major
difference between the two.

These camels are jockeyed by robots.

Rather than a
cumbersome human in the saddle making things slower
and more dangerous. The robots contain a loud speaker,
which allows the owner to shout commands to the camel
via walkie-talkie

as they drive alongside.

There’s even a remote-controlled
riding prop strategically deployed
to spur them along to victory. Mohammed is one of the
race organizers. Is there like a standard design or
can people kind of tamper with them

and suit them up?

And with millions of dollars
at stake, referees must check
for signs of foul play. So when the race is done
you take the jockey and you test it.


So what are you testing for?

So people have tried to electrocute
the camel to get it to go faster.



So what’s within here?
It’s like a rotary.

That’s amazing.

It’s literally a drill
that they’ve adapted. And so the bit that spins on
the drill is what turns the whip.


It was finally time for us

to experience
camel racing for ourselves.

That’s the start line.

And there off.

This involved inserting myself
into a scrum of 4X4’s. None of the drivers
had their eyes on the road. They were too busy concentrating
on the performance of their camels

and the robots jockeying them.

Oh my God, that’s really stressful.

As the race continued,
the mayhem deepened. We were jostling bumper to bumper
for a better vantage point. As dust billowed
and commentary blared. Meanwhile, hundreds of spectators
anxiously waited for the winner

to cross the finish line.

For others at the festival,
the fastest camels aren’t nearly as important
as the most beautiful. So this part of the
camel beauty contest

is about beauty en masse.

We’ve got herds of a 100 camels
and the judges are looking to judge the sort of collective
attractiveness of each herd. I can’t tell how beautiful these are,
they look alright to me. And you even got some baby ones,
some supermodels in training.

To get a better understanding

of what exactly makes
a beautiful camel,

we met with one of the judges.

This year, the beauty contest
was rocked by scandal and that scandal came
in the form of Botox.

Days prior to the competition,

a dozen camels were disqualified
after it was found they’d received Botox injections in their lips,
noses and jaws. Since the most beautiful camels
are worth millions,

the stakes are high.

In light of this cheating,

the festival has stepped up
screening for all camels involved. So they’re looking for signs of
cheating, like cosmetic enhancement

to the camels.

The camels are a bit stressed,

so they’re trying to get
them to calm down

so they can check their lips.

How can you tell by eye,
just by looking

if there’s something slightly off?

If we have any doubt, any doubt,

we will catch it separately

and we will feel it down.
We will check. This inspection involves
feeding the camels snacks to see how naturally
their lips move. How many camels do you have to
check during the festival? -Today, 1,300.
-Total. Wow! You have to check them,
that many today? -Yes, we checked one by one.
-Wow. So this man,
hiding in these legs is Naif,

and he’s tipped to win.

Naif, the winner
of last year’s contest,

has walked his herd of 100 camels

cross-country for 15 days
to get to the event. We have the most beautiful camels
in the Gulf area. Of all the 100 camels,
do you have one favorite?

Yeah, I have, maybe two.

Come. This is one, very nice.


-That’s a beautiful camel.
-Yes, this one. -And this one also.
-Oh, hello.

This one’s very nice.

So how much does
a camel like this one cost? One million riyals,
it’s around a half-a-million.

Ferrari and Porsche together.

-That’s amazing.
-Some of them more.

This one is Bugatti.

They’ve just decided
that I should ride. I don’t think the camel’s
that thrilled about it.

This is wild.


-You are the guide now.
-I’m the guide now. How much of your life do you
spend doing traditional pursuits? Only on the weekends
and the holidays.

Not everyday.

So, the rest of the time
you work in investment banking? Yeah, different life,
different sector, different– Long, long time, around
50 years ago, 60 years ago.

Everything has changed here.

Before our life,
our grandfather’s life.

Here in Saudi Arabia it’s different,

one hundred percent
different than now. Do you ever worry about
traditions being lost with the way
the country is changing? It’s not lost,
but it will be not like before.

It will change, but it will not lost.

But we don’t want to lose our camels
because they’re too expensive for us. And your life might change
if you get a phone call soon? We are waiting for the–
who will be the winner today.

From today’s competition?

From today’s competition.

If we win, we will stay
until the King will come.



And then you would meet him?

Of course, the first winner
will meet the King.

That’s amazing.

Oh yeah, and I meet
Prince Mohammad Bin Salman also. Are you excited of the idea
of meeting MBS?

Of course, he is our new King.

He’s our guy now.

We are excited with him
and we are moving with him. We are changing with him,
for the better. It was almost time for Naif
to find out if he’d won. So, Naif’s been waiting for
seven o’clock for the call to tell him whether or not his
camels have won the beauty contest.

And it’s now past seven o’clock,

and there’s been no call.

But he can also see if it’s been
announced on Twitter so he keeps trying to
refresh Twitter.

But, since we’re in the desert

Twitter’s not really
behaving too well.

So it’s very tense in here.

Why today they are late?

Why they are delaying.

It’s eight o’clock everyone.

When I’m nervous I can’t eat.

You are nervous now?

No, but I thought maybe
you would be nervous

because you’re waiting for the call.

-Oh, don’t tell me.

You okay?

I’m not okay.

-It’s come, it’s come.
-It’s come! Did you win? Second?
Well done! I thought that
we are the first.

Well done!

Thank you very much.

-We came second?
-We came second.

Your happy?

Your a bit disappointed?

Yeah, of course.
We are not happy. You’re not going to
meet the main guy.

This is a bad thing.

So these are the winning
100 camels in the category

that would have beat Naif’s camels

and they’re currently now parading
for the King and MBS. And also regional dignitaries,
leaders of neighboring countries. As I watch the highly
choreographed closing ceremony, it was clear that
in modern Saudi Arabia

camels remain important.

They may not be a main source
of transport or food, but to Saudi’s elite, like Naif
and the country’s leadership They’re a source of national pride
and even regional solidarity.


Camels are the Clydesdales of Saudi Arabia, venerated for their good looks, grace, and speed. Even as the country rapidly modernizes, the animals remain a central part of Saudi culture, and a lucrative one—with prized camels selling for more than $1 million. VICE trekked to Al-Dahna for the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival—the largest of its kind—where titans of business and politics in the Middle East flock each year for a display of the finest camels in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of participants pit their camels head-to-head in a frenzied race and beauty contest for a chance to win roughly $57 million in prize money, and a chance to meet Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince. WATCH NEXT: The Illegal Big Cats of Instagram — Click here to subscribe to VICE: Check out our full video catalog: Videos, daily editorial and more: More videos from the VICE network: Click here to get the best of VICE daily: Like VICE on Facebook: Follow VICE on Twitter: Follow us on Instagram: Download VICE on iOS: Download VICE on Android:

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