A $5 billion gamble? Casino to land in Gulf state where gambling is outlawed

A  billion gamble? Casino to land in Gulf state where gambling is outlawed
A  billion gamble? Casino to land in Gulf state where gambling is outlawed
By Lucy Cormack

A Las Vegas casino titan soon to park itself in an Islamic Gulf state could trigger the overturning of strict Islamic law (sharia) that forbids gambling, with an up-and-coming tourist haven preparing for the opening of a luxury $5.7 billion gaming resort.

In Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, the planned 2027 launch of the luxury integrated Wynn Resort will open the door to 1500 “lavishly styled” rooms, high-end dining and shopping, a spa, theatre and, for the first time in the Gulf region, a gaming area.

Artist impression of Wynn Resorts’ upcoming resort on Al Marjan Island in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE.

Gambling is still prohibited in the UAE under sharia, an offence punishable by heavy fines or up to two years in prison, and casinos are not legal – yet. But regulatory change is afoot, with a new government department to regulate entertainment and gaming operations within Ras Al Khaimah.

Opening the first casino in the UAE would be a striking move from one of the smaller emirates, a bold flex as the region navigates an untrodden path to diversify its economy towards a future less reliant on oil.

The operators are yet to specify what gaming it will include at the site but have described the development as an “integrated resort”, a term usually used to describe a casino blended with a variety of leisure, entertainment and hotel attractions, as at Sydney’s Star casino or Melbourne’s Crown.

The project is being developed with two local partners, including the state-owned RAK Hospitality Holding LLC.

Ras Al Khaimah, colloquially known as “RAK”, is the fourth-largest emirate and lies 100 kilometres to the north of the glitzier Dubai megacity.

Development on Ras AlKhaimah’s man-made archipelago.

Development on Ras AlKhaimah’s man-made archipelago.Credit: Bloomberg

Home to about 400,000 people, the northernmost Emirate is set against a backdrop of the Arabian Peninsula, and enclosed by the Jebel Yanis and Jebel Jais mountains.


The picturesque setting has made way for a tourist playground on RAK’s Al Marjan Island since 2004, however the import of Las Vegas’ Wynn Resort to the region is expected to further accelerate the emirate’s rise as a global luxury tourist destination.

“There’s definitely some economic piggybacking happening here,” said Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“RAK [is] clearly leveraging the reputation and status of the broader country and key emirates like Dubai and Abu Dhabi to support its economic development strategy.”

Mogielnicki said attracting visitors interested in gaming would support a whole host of other “non-oil segments” of the local economy on its mission to diversify: “There’s a lot of disposable wealth to spread around from that industry.”

A view of the majestic Jebel Jais mountain in Ras Al Khaimah.

A view of the majestic Jebel Jais mountain in Ras Al Khaimah.

Gaming will make up 4 per cent of the Ras Al Khaimah development, chief executive of the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority Raki Phillips told Reuters in May.

The project will mark the biggest foreign direct investment for the publicly listed Wynn Resorts Limited, which also operates integrated resorts in Las Vegas and Macau. A spokesman for Wynn Resorts did not respond to questions from this masthead.

The Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.Credit: Bloomberg

Ras Al Khaimah first heralded its plan to regulate gaming in January last year, announcing a new department to establish a regulatory framework ensuring “the responsible practice of recreational gaming at all levels”.

A spokesperson for the authority did not respond to questions, but referred to two earlier press releases about the Wynn development.

The project has revived speculation within the UAE’s legal, hospitality and trade sectors about whether gambling could soon be allowed in Dubai, where a Caesars Palace resort opened in 2018 without a casino attached. It is the only resort in Caesars’ global stable that does not offer gambling, however the group last year said it would examine any possibility of that changing.

The Dubai Media Office said the proposed introduction of gambling constituted a federal matter and that there was no change in Dubai law regarding gambling.

How a gaming resort would operate in line with sharia remains to be seen. However, Mogielnicki said one obvious route would be regulation through a new or existing “free zone,” which he described as a useful economic policymaking tool for encouraging the growth of nascent industries.

Ras Al Khaimah has been budding as a tourist resort haven since 2004.

Ras Al Khaimah has been budding as a tourist resort haven since 2004.

Fellow of gaming law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Boyd School of Law, Anthony Cabot, said another possible approach would be different rules for residents, visitors and tourists.

“Given that approximately 90 per cent of the [UAE] population is non-nationals, a ban on citizens gambling will not significantly hinder a successful industry.”

Cabot said different regulatory models in markets like Singapore, Macau, and Nevada were examples for the UAE to consider.

“Singapore follows a conservative approach, imposing strict regulations on industry involvement, particularly with gaming promoters. Macau has been less regulated, which has led to issues like organised crime infiltration and widespread money laundering. Nevada falls somewhere in between,” he said.

“Emulating the Macau system, which was also adopted in Australia, proved to be highly lucrative but came with significant problems. Singapore minimised scandals by excluding junket operators, albeit potentially sacrificing some additional revenue.”

A 2023 snapshot of the region’s property market by global real estate consultant Knight Frank observed increased investment activities and market sentiment from major developers in Ras Al Khaimah since the announcement of the gaming resort.

Knight Frank (with YouGov) surveyed 183 global high-net-worth-individuals from across North America, UK/Europe and East Asia, each with a combined net worth of $US3.2 billion.

It found one-third of respondents were more likely to purchase property in Ras Al Khaimah if a casino opened, while 48 per cent said they would be more likely to purchase property in Dubai if a casino launched there. Almost half said they expected casinos to open in the UAE within one to two years.

Mogielnicki said there was increasing interest in a growing gaming industry in the UAE, a region that has become known for setting highly ambitious economic targets.

“It fits with the UAE’s modus operandi, wherein the country likes to be at the forefront of new industries and global opportunities,” he said.

“Usually, it’s the high rollers of Dubai or Abu Dhabi at the table, so it’s interesting to see another emirate-level player making a big first move here.”

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Source: smh.com.au

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