Beauty and the bleat: The Saudi men who stare at goats

By Khaled Diab

Are Saudi Arabian beauty shows for goats as weird and outlandish as they seem?

23 November 2009

Can a man kill a goat armed with little more than his eyes? Well, the US military seemed willing to believe in the possibility of such superhuman powers, as revealed in The men who stare at goats, Jon Ronson's book about how the American army investigated the application of psychic power in combat situations which has been turned into a film starring George Clooney.

Another group of people who believe in the eye's destructive power on four-legged bovidae are Saudi breeders of pedigree goats for competitions. “Like everything else, goats are also believed by some to be affected by the evil eye,” writes Omaima al-Fardan in Arab News.

One luckless goat-trader claimed that he had tried to revive his prize goat's ardour, after he had allegedly been struck by the evil eye, by using Viagra. Unsurprisingly, it didn't work. And this kind of smiting can cause a big dent in the wallet, given that a thoroughbred newborn Damascene goat can fetch as much as 50,000 riyals (about £8,000) – I kid you not.

That goats can have a pedigree may come as something of a surprise to many outsiders, especially Europeans, for whom goats, if they appear at all in the popular imagination, tend to be associated with lust and evil – recall that popular depictions of Satan have him sporting a goat's horns and hooves, not to mention a goatee. Of course, goats do produce the most beautiful fabrics in the world, such as cashmere wool.

The animal has become so prized in contemporary that last year the kingdom held its very first goat ‘beauty contest'. Reflecting the novelty of the event (or possibly nepotism), most of the participants were descendants of a single patriarchal goat, the fiery Burgan (Volcano) – you could call him the Abraham of pedigree goats, you know the one who had to sacrifice his son so that Ismail/Isaac, depending on the version, would be let off the hook.

The winner in the male category was a son of Burkan who fetched a staggering 450,000 riyals. In fact, the goatly patriarch has made his owner a neat 8 million riyals to date.

In an ultra-conservative country where the nearest thing to a female is the Miss Beautiful Morals contest, the outlandishness of goats strutting their stuff on a catwalk is fertile breeding ground for all kinds of goat-related jokes and innuendos, similar to the ones provoked by camel beauty shows (where as much as $3 million have been paid for thoroughbred camels).

But are goat and pageants so strange? Saudi may have its camel and goat contests, but the West has its equally surreal cat and dog shows. To an outsider (and many insiders), how weird is it to see manicured, pedicured and shampooed hounds and felines being paraded in all earnestness before judges?

How must the world's poorest citizens react to the news that our cats and dogs are often better fed than they are? In fact, it turns out that, if a recent book is to be believed, the average western dog lives off more land than the average Ethiopian.

Then, there are thoroughbred horses (a trend also, incidentally, started by the Arabs). Last year, for instance, an American stables paid a staggering $14 million for a horse named Better than Honour (for that price, I should hope she is).

So, why all the jokes? Part of the reason is the exoticness of other societies' fetishes. In addition, this particular brand of humour has an ancient pedigree, stemming as it does from centuries of Western suspicion towards the ‘licentious' and his shady intimacy with the ‘ship of the desert'. Growing up in London, I was constantly asked by wits of clone-like originality if I came to school on a camel and whether my parents owned an oil field – I was even advised “not to get the hump” if I exhibited any impatience with these wearisome questions.

That's not to say that there's no truth to the Arab soft spot for camels. Although this most powerful and versatile of desert beasts has become obsolete in the modern age, except in the most isolated of desert communities, its place as a cultural icon lives on, particularly in Arabia proper.

But given the enormous economic, political and social role camels over the centuries, this is no great surprise. After all, the Arab conquest of the was achieved on the backs of camels, whose mobility and stamina proved conclusive in battles fought over great distances. Moreover, camels helped the Arab and Islamic worlds dominate the global trading system for centuries.

Of course, Arabs are not alone in suffering from this kind of humour. Basically, any peoples with whom you share a historical rivalry are fair game when it comes to insinuations of bestiality. Consider, for example, all those Welsh sheep jokes.


This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 21 November 2009. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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