Published: February 9, 2022

Is Gambling On The Cards For The UAE?

The sleepy, often-overlooked emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, in the north of the United Arab Emirates, caused a minor shockwave in January, by announcing a deal with Las Vegas stalwart Wynn Resorts to develop a new multibillion-dollar property.

It was not the first time a major casino operator has ventured into the Gulf country, where gambling is illegal. MGM, for example, has announced several deals with Emirati companies over the past 15 years. What was different about the Wynn deal was that it explicitly included plans to develop “a gaming area”.

It remains unclear about just what is being cooked up though. Those directly involved have been notably vague about what they mean by ‘gaming’. The euphemistic word could mean a casino with roulette wheels and blackjack tables, or it could conceivably be something more innocent such as e-sports activities.

“We’ll have to see how it will be developed. It’s an awkward subject,” said one local commentator. “They’ll keep it vague for the time being.”

Creating this room for maneuver is unlikely to be accidental. The decision to leave things undefined means there is less risk of upsetting local sensibilities in what is often a very conservative culture.

“I think they will slowly develop it until they have broad acceptance in society,” said Jakob Kisser, UAE managing partner at Strohal Legal Group. “At the beginning they might slightly extend the limits of what is already permitted. Local laws for example allow raffles and wagers under certain conditions. They might also allow poker on the basis that it is not purely a game of chance. But, at the end of the day, I’m sure there will be a proper casino license."

Man-made Marjan

The new resort is planned for Al Marjan Island which, like the more famous Palm Jumeirah down the coast in Dubai, is a man-made mini archipelago.

Wynn is partnering with the local Marjan – the master-developer of freehold property in the emirate – and RAK Hospitality Holding, which owns and operates a string of hotels and leisure assets.

McGregor Discusses His New ‘Obi‑Wan The development is scheduled to open in 2026. Marjan chief executive Abdulla Al Abdooli said the “entertainment and gaming amenities” at the 1,000-room development would help the emirate with its strategy of trying to attract more tourists.

A spokesman for Marjan declined to define what was meant by “gaming” but said “The gaming facility is currently in the design phase and will be purposely built … taking into consideration culture and societal norms.”

Before then the developers will need to apply for an integrated resort license from the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority’s newly-established Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation. The term ‘integrated resort’ is also often used to describe a casino and hotel complex and the decision to set up a new department to deal with such places suggests the Wynn resort might not be a one-off.

Wynn has not said how much it is investing in the project but said it is “a significant foreign direct investment.” It will also operate the resort.

If all goes smoothly other emirates are expected to follow suit, chief among them Dubai.

"Once you open the door to this and tourists come in, then Dubai I’m sure will follow, but it might take a few years,” said Kisser.

Dubai has some past experience which may prove useful. A subsidiary of Dubai World signed a deal with MGM in 2007 involving a $5bn investment by the UAE investor. That ran through until July 2021, when MGM bought out its partner.

In 2017, MGM Hospitality announced a deal with Dubai-based Wasl Hospitality and Leisure to develop a resort in Dubai. It is not clear what the status of that project is.

A decade before that, Abu Dhabi government-owned Mubadala Development signed a deal with MGM Mirage to develop non-gaming hotels and resorts in Abu Dhabi and Las Vegas. The MGM Grand Abu Dhabi was announced the following year, but was never completed.

© Public Gaming Research Institute. All rights reserved.