Given the scale, creativity and sheer speed of the tourism development that has occurred over the past couple of decades, it comes as little surprise to learn that once again, the biggest names in the global casino industry are casting more than admiring glances at the United Arab Emirates.
Entrepreneurs and developers have long considered the role models of Las Vegas and, more recently, Macau, and identified not only synergies but even advantages enjoyed by the Middle East. Despite an unparalleled explosion in tourism, the eternal obstacle to casino resorts has always been a commitment to Islam, and its strict anti-gambling stance. However, behind closed doors the business executives and the politicians have finally started speaking the same language. And there is little doubt that a relaxation of constraints in this part of the world would represent the greatest of all prizes.
Ultimately, money talks
For the past six decades, the only truly authentic casino in the Middle East has been Lebanon’s lavish Casino du Liban. With the odd, more modest exception popping up within tourist hotels in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, this architecturally magnificent survivor of domestic conflicts and economic crises, described as ‘the Monaco of the Middle East’, has enjoyed unchallenged dominance since first opening its doors in 1959. But it seems that ultimately, money talks, and the times they are a-changing.
In view of the vast tourism industry within Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the potential for the Emirates as a whole, there seems to be a sense of inevitability about live, resort-based gambling being carefully permitted within certain parts of the UAE.
Ras Al Khaimah makes the first move
Just last year, the sheikhdom of Ras Al Khaimah, the oldest and northernmost of the seven emirates, revealed plans to regulate gaming in resort locations, as it pushes for a greater slice of what is a huge regional tourism pie. This coincided with the announcement that Wynn Resorts plans to build a multi-billion-dollar resort licensed for gaming on Ras Al Khaimah’s man-made Marjan Island.
Those hotel brands with casino expertise that already operate within the UAE would clearly seek an early mover advantage, should Ras Al Khaimah usher in a change of heart across the Emirates. Caesars Palace has been in Dubai since 2018 but in what can only ever have been part of a forward-looking process, it is the only Caesars resort in the world without a casino.
Anthony Costa, the company’s Regional President, recently told the Reuters news agency that “acceptance now that there is going to be the potential of gaming in the UAE, in whatever form it is going to be, allows people like Caesar’s and MGM as well to look at that closely.” This comment references the fact that MGM Resorts International has begun work on another artificial outcrop to support a luxury resort, although the company currently maintains that gaming has not been part of the planning.
Of course the reality is that a whole host of major players will be keeping the closest of eyes on this situation, with the undoubted jackpot of Dubai being the goose that will lay the most golden of eggs.
Saudi Arabia could take a seat at the table too
Despite being the most conservative of all Gulf states, the giant that is Saudi Arabia is itself seeking to become more open and accessible, as the vast investments in global leisure and sports projects confirm. The Saudis will certainly want a piece of the action but, for the time being, the Emirates are in the hot seat. With a population that is 90% foreign, the UAE has already switched to a Saturday/Sunday weekend, aligning itself with most of the rest of the world, and changes to laws relating to alcohol consumption and pre-marital cohabitation have also been significantly relaxed.
And finally, the foot in the door came in 2020 with the introduction of some ‘softer’, federally managed forms of gaming. These include a national lottery – ‘Loto’ – in which players purchase a photograph of an iconic UAE scene for AED35 (dirhams), equivalent to $9.50. This includes entry into a prize draw with a top prize of AED10m ($2.72m). And modest, free-to-enter betting opportunities are now allowed at certain UAE racecourses, with prizes up to AED40,000 ($11,000).
Changes to Federal Law are required
For those seeking such radical change, including the ‘local’ legislators within Ras Al Khaimah, everything will depend upon the UAE’s federal lawmakers, as removal of gambling prohibition from the Emirates wide penal code will be required before meaningful progress can be made.
The Ras Al Khaimah Tourist Development Authority recently created a Department of Entertainment & Gaming Regulation, with the aim of arguing that gaming is a responsible form of entertainment and leisure tourism. The likelihood is that the logical step for Ras Al Khaimah, and the other Emirates, will be to follow the models adopted by others and allow gaming to be offered exclusively in high-end resort environments, thereby further playing into the hands of the very largest developers and investors.
Integration and foreigner-only is the answer
Given the huge focus on tourism across the UAE, and the resultant ‘transient’ nature of its constantly moving population, developers will clearly favour fully integrated resorts, where gaming is presented as an element within a far wider entertainment offering. These locations would include live music, nightclubs, fine dining, health spas, cinemas and facilities for families, with casino gaming just part of a widespread ‘a la carte’ menu of options. And the presentation will be more discreet, as is the case in Singapore for example, with the casino operating fully, but not as a focal point.
Whoever our personal God is, and whether or not we each follow a particular religion, one of the realities of life is that all governments need to raise money in order to provide infrastructure for their people. And provided they protect their people from the ‘evils’ of the world, there are few more effective ways of raising this money than emptying the pockets of wealthy foreign visitors. When it comes to the Gulf, the only gamble is whether or not it will be allowed, because if it is, then it will be a winner for everybody involved.