By Lisa Barrington and Farah Master
DUBAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) – It has been the subject of silent speculation among diplomats and leaders for years, but now global casino bosses are eyeing a once unlikely prize: gambling in the United Arab Emirates
Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), one of the smallest and least known of the seven emirates, said earlier this year it planned to regulate gambling in some resorts. On the same day, Las Vegas casino giant Wynn Resorts said it would build a gambling-permitted resort or gamble on a man-made island.
The announcements could mark a watershed moment for the Gulf, a region that has traditionally imposed stricter Islamic rules than other parts of the Middle East, and a region where gambling has long been banned.
Currently, those looking for a flutter head to Lebanon’s Casino du Liban or some high-end Egyptian hotels.
However, times can change.
Two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters that gambling in one form or another would be allowed in the United Arab Emirates, but it would be up to each emirate to decide whether and how to regulate it, in the same way that Sharjah prohibits the sale of alcohol unlike other emirates. The sources said it would happen soon, without providing a specific time frame.
Other global casino and hotel brands that have moved to the UAE could benefit if RAK paves the way for other emirates – with many eyes on Dubai’s bigger and glitzier jackpot, a tourist magnet world, where gambling is currently prohibited.
Caesars Palace, which opened in Dubai in 2018 and is the only resort from US giant Caesars Entertainment not to have a casino in the world, told Reuters it would look into any possibility of offering casino games. money in Dubai.
“This acceptance now that there will be gambling potential in the UAE in any form also allows people like Caesar’s and MGM to take a close look at this,” said Anthony Costa, Regional President of Caesars Palace. . . “I think it’s wonderful.”
“Like everyone else, if a license can be offered, any global game company will want to be actively involved in the conversation,” he added.
About 10km along the Dubai coast from the Caesars resort, digging has begun on another man-made outcrop to support a luxury resort by Las Vegas gambling stalwart MGM Resorts International.
When asked if it would consider introducing games to the complex, MGM said “gaming has not been part of the planning and there are no updates to our plans. “.
A year ago Dubai, traditionally the most liberal emirate, denied rumors circulating on social media and among the business community that several hospitality venues had obtained gambling licenses.
The UAE government media office, as well as the emirate media offices of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, did not respond to requests for comment on RAK’s plan to regulate gambling. money and whether they were planning to make similar changes.
UAE VS SAUDI
The casino prospect is set against the backdrop of intense competition in the Gulf, with the UAE’s business and tourism hub vying with fast-opening Saudi Arabia to become the go-to destination in a region that is growing. away from oil.
The United Arab Emirates, where foreigners make up 90% of the population, has already moved to other regions to maintain a first-mover advantage over Saudi Arabia, the largest and most conservative Gulf state. .
The Emirates has moved to a Saturday-Sunday weekend this year to be closer to global markets, from the Friday-Saturday break common in many Muslim countries. Over the past 18 months, the UAE has overhauled its laws and regulations, including decriminalizing alcohol consumption and premarital cohabitation.
The country has also found ways to offer potentially lucrative gambling.
In 2020, a national “Loto” was launched, for example. Players purchased a “collectible” image of an iconic scene in the United Arab Emirates, such as the Burj al Arab hotel, for 35 dirhams ($9.50) and entered into a raffle. Now, players wishing to participate in the draw buy a bottle of water to donate to charity to win a first prize of 10 million dirhams.
The game was found to be Sharia compliant due to the existence of an “exchange of value” when purchasing the collectible or bottle.
Horse racing fans at select UAE racetracks can also participate in a free “select six” competition across a number of races for the chance to win 40,000 dirhams.
Yet, while RAK’s intentions are clear, big question marks remain as to how he or other emirates would actually allow gambling, until a ban is removed from the federal penal code. , which was revised last January.
RAK stressed that its regulations, being developed by the recently created Entertainment and Gaming Regulatory Department, would incentivize responsible gambling.
“Gaming is a responsible form of entertainment and leisure tourism that takes community, cultural and social norms into consideration,” the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority told Reuters.
He did not respond to questions about how his plans would work alongside the federal ban.
Wynn told Reuters that the definition of games and types of games allowed would be determined by the regulator.
According to Wynn Resorts and Vitaly Umansky, a gaming industry analyst at investment firm Sanford C Bernstein in Hong Kong, who is familiar with the Wynn project, RAK’s gaming regulations are shaped by those of Singapore and the United States. United.
“Like Singapore, the country is looking to games to help boost tourism and has allowed the games to be held in an integrated resort format for that very purpose,” Umansky said.
He added that gambling in RAK would likely be limited to foreigners.
It also seems unlikely that the UAE will develop resorts that rely primarily on gaming revenue, or top-tier gaming, with slots and tables forming part of a vast entertainment offering.
“The regulatory environment would be the kind that hides the casino, a bit like Singapore but more. It won’t be like Vegas where the casino is there,” Umansky said of Wynn’s proposals, which are currently in the works. conception phase. .
Caesar’s Costa said big resort brands don’t necessarily need to exploit their gaming side: “These are big hotels in their own right.”
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Farah Master; Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell)