Middle East

UAE likely to be new destination for international casinos, claims BBC report

A BBC report has claimed that the UAE is preparing to be the new destination for international casinos as it seeks foreign investment. According to the BBC, the UAE is looking at this option after Saudi Arabia announced that foreign companies must move their headquarters to the Kingdom by 2024 if they wish to enjoy Saudi government investment opportunities.

The UAE is expected to move quickly to maintain its position as a leader in foreign investments, which Dubai has excelled in for decades. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is focusing on amusement parks as an investment solution. With major casino operators turning to new countries in search of markets with potential, the UAE could cash in, not least because of the saturation of the US market and Macau’s lack of openness to new concessions.

There aren’t many Arab countries which allow casinos to open. Lebanon allows residents and foreigners alike to enter its casinos, whereas Egypt limits them — indeed, all gambling — to foreigners only, as does Tunisia. Morocco allows all forms of gambling.

The UAE thus has a chance to be the next big market. In January, one of the smallest of its seven emirates, Ras Al-Khaimah, announced a deal with Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas to build an integrated resort on Al-Marjan Island, a small, man-made archipelago similar to the famous Palm Jumeirah on the coast of Dubai. Wynn Resorts is participating in this project with the local Marjan Group Holding, which owns and operates a chain of hotels and leisure assets.

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This isn’t the first time that a major casino operator such as Wynn has ventured into the Gulf emirates, where gambling is theoretically still illegal. What’s new about the Wynn deal is that it explicitly includes plans to develop a “play zone”. The word “play” here is ambiguous; it could mean a casino with roulette and blackjack tables or it could mean something more innocent, like sports facilities. Such word games in planning proposals are not accidental, as conservative countries do not want to anger their citizens.

Analysts estimate that Wynn will generate at least 20 per cent investment returns in the Marjan Island project, according to information obtained by Reuters. However, developers need to apply for an integrated resort licence from the newly-established Department of Leisure and Games Regulation, affiliated with the Ras Al-Khaimah Tourism Development Authority.

The term “integrated resort” is often used to describe a casino and hotel complex, and the decision to create a new division to deal with such venues indicates that the Wynn resort model may not be a one off. If things go smoothly, it is expected that the other emirates will follow the example of Ras Al-Khaimah, led by Dubai.

Caesars Entertainment, meanwhile, has already announced an assessment of the relevant opportunities in Dubai, as it currently has a hotel that is not licensed for gambling. The BBC quoted the regional president of Caesars Palace in Dubai, Anthony Costa, as saying that his company is interested in the matter, but no applications have been submitted yet. “There is only speculation about Dubai,” said Costa. “Only Ras Al-Khaimah has announced plans. We are interested in being Dubai’s turn in the future.”

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