BANBAN, Saudi Arabia — The contestants scampered down the tiny runway, bleating at their admirers. Poets sang their praises in verse as the male-only audience checked out the competitors' physical beauty, including the span of their cheeks, the length of their necks and the color of the hair covering their bodies.
However, instead of winning a cup and a tiara, some of the finalists in the first Saudi beauty pageant featuring locally bred sheep were auctioned off to bidders, some of whom traveled to the kingdom for Thursday night's event.
The contest, a far cry from female beauty pageants held in some Arab countries like Lebanon, offered an opportunity for breeders to do business and a rare outlet for entertainment in a country where the few recreational activities that exist are under the strict glare of the religious police.
It was also meant to encourage Saudis to breed for quality. Some of those who attended the event said Saudi sheep — known as Nejdi sheep — have markedly improved over the past decade because of the attention given to breeding them.
“The Nejdi sheep of today are much more beautiful than those of 10 years ago,” said Salem al-Ghannami, a 37-year-old Emirati who came for the event.
In the past few years, beauty pageants involving camels and goats — which, together with sheep, symbolize Bedouin lifestyle — have been held across the kingdom. But senior members of the royal family have reportedly been upset because the contests turned into rancorous competitions between tribes over who has the most beautiful breed. Thursday's pageant did not list the tribes who owned the animals.
On Thursday evening, some 4,000 men assembled on a lit-up stretch of desert just north of Riyadh covered with hundreds of carpets. The event was off-limits to women in line with strict Saudi rules that ban the sexes from mixing in public.
The men sat in armchairs around a tiny runway covered with red carpeting. The stench of dung filled the cool desert air as male and female sheep, known as rams and ewes, were put on display following a fireworks show and a competition for the best sheep-praising poem.
The event's organizer, Faisal al-Saadoun, said connoisseurs have an eye for attractive sheep.
“Just like humans, sheep shouldn't have fat in unwanted places,” said al-Saadoun, a prominent businessman. "They should also be tall."
He said good ewes sell for 20,000-30,000 Saudi riyals ($5,300-$8,000), but good rams can fetch hundreds of thousands of riyals.
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“Rams are more expensive because they can produce 100 sheep a year, while ewes can produce a couple or so,” he said.
Al-Saadoun owns 3-year-old Burgan — Arabic for lightning — the kingdom's most famous sheep, which has been compared to an oil well because his much sought-after offspring have fetched more than 8 million riyals ($2.1 million).
Out of the 10 finalists, eight were Burgan's offspring, including the winning ram and ewe. Al-Ghannami — who owns 200 sheep, including two from Burgan — said breeders are willing to "pay millions for beauty."
“I want to collect sheep from a good stock,” said al-Ghannami, who works in the United Arab Emirates' Interior Ministry. “It's a hobby. I don't do it for money.”
Close to midnight, Fahd al-Jinahi, a 31-year-old Saudi, walked away with his prize purchase: Sana, a ram from Burgan's breed that he bought for 450,000 riyals ($120,650).
Why did he choose it?
“I loved the length and width of his cheeks, his long neck and how his creamy yellow hair falls down his body,” said al-Jinahi.
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