A review of developments in the Middle East and North Africa
In this majority Muslim region it may surprise readers to learn that casino and other games are not only permissible but new developments are coming onstream. Andrew Cotton and Alasdair Holland share details
One of the most significant and interesting developments in the land-based casino industry is starting to take shape in the United Arab Emirates – yes, you read that correctly! Ras Al Khaimah, an Emirate that is about an hour’s drive from Dubai, seeks to triple the number of tourists it attracts to three million by the end of the decade and along with Dubai has created man made islands “off shore” to help it achieve that ambition.
In January 2022 Wynn announced plans to develop an integrated resort in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. On 10th November Wynn Resorts confirmed that it would open a gaming area at the luxury resort being constructing on Dream Island, part of Ras Al Khaimah’s Al Marjan Island project built on land reclaimed from the sea. Unlike the rest of Al Marjan Island, Dream Island has seen no development.
Wynn Resort Ras Al Khaimah – the detail announced to date
Under the current plans for the Al Marjan Island development the ‘Wynn Integrated Resort’ will be the only hotel on Dream Island, as all other resort projects are spread across zones known as Breeze Island, Treasure Island and View Island.
The development is the first beach resort being developed by Wynn Resorts globally. The current plans includes a 1,000- plus room hotel, a high-end shopping mall, a state-of-the-art meeting and convention facility, a spa, more than 10 restaurants and lounges, a wide array of entertainment choices and other amenities, including a gaming area. The proposed resort is set to be constructed on a site of some 250,000 sq m. Wynn’s CEO Craig Billings announced in November that the casino element would be around 18,500 sq m in size and so will become one of the ten biggest casinos in the world and almost double the size of the one in Wynn’s Las Vegas Resort.
When Wynn announced its plans a year ago it confirmed it would only enter a market where gaming legislation is in place. It is not clear whether this condition has been fulfilled or even whether the requisite gaming legislation has been drafted although it has been reported that it will be modelled on regimes in Singapore and the United States. The Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority announced at the Arabian Travel Market exhibition held in Dubai in May 2022 that it had created a new department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation to monitor “integrated resorts”.
When the resort opens in 2026 Wynn estimates that 95 percent of the world’s population will be within an eight-hour flight of a Wynn Resort. So the big question is: where next? It is actually not necessary to travel too far to see signs of other potential resort casino developments in resorts that have already been constructed or are planned in one of Ras Al Khaimah’s close neighbours, Dubai.
Islam and gambling
Following Wynn’s announcements there is renewed talk of casinos being introduced in other UAE Emirates such as the regional tourism hub Dubai.
How is this possible when in relation to Islam’s position on gambling it is clearly forbidden? In several places in the Quran the sinfulness of gambling is specifically mentioned; in particular, the distraction from prayer it causes. Indeed, in June 2022 the Dubai police issued a warning about the illegality of gambling at a security awareness workshop. The workshop was organised by Dubai Police, in cooperation with the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Dubai and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. It is noteworthy that the Consul General of China attended.
It is reported that Major Dr Saud al-Khalidi from Dubai police’s Organised Crime Department and Captain Ahmed Al Zarouni from the Crime Prevention Department said: “whoever gambles shall be punished by detention for a maximum period of two years or by a fine not exceeding Dh20,000 (approximately US$5500). Also, imprisonment or a fine shall be imposed if the crime occurs in a public place, a place open to the public, or in a place or house prepared for gambling, according to Articles 414 and 415 of the Federal Law No. (3) of 1987 Promulgating the Penal Code.”
However, given the significance of the tourist economy in several Emirates the rulers of Dubai and almost certainly Ras Al Khaimah probably realise that, as with the relaxation of laws on the consumption of alcohol by tourists in hotel resorts and the ability of ex-pats to purchase alcohol in a wider range of outlets, they can only fully compete with destination resorts in other countries if the prohibition on gambling and casinos is relaxed.
As we will explore in more detail, some forms of activity that would be perceived as and/or defined as gambling in other jurisdictions are already permitted in Dubai, which takes a less conservative approach than neighbouring states such as Qatar. Dubai has already seen the development of two integrated resorts, which anywhere else in the world would contain casino facilities. The Atlantis at the end of the Palm is a mirror image of its twin in the Bahamas which has a 6,000 sq m casino. Caesars Entertainment has more recently constructed and opened an integrated resort on Bluewaters Island, close to the Dubai Marina. The common denominator in all three of these resort developments is that they are/have been constructed off shore on man-made islands reclaimed from the sea.
MGM have also announced that they will soon start constructing an integrated resort off the coast at Jumeirah Beach, close to the Burj Al Arab. MGM have denied that it will contain a casino but with the significant investment by two major Las Vegas based casino operators it must at least be possible that space has been “set aside”.
Then of course there is the QE2 which, although permanently moored at Port Rashid, quite close to the Dubai Creek, is still a floating vessel. The luxury liner will originally have boasted a casino on board and so would the current owners find space to re-instate a potentially lucrative asset and added tourist attraction? In common with most jurisdictions casinos on cruise ships must be closed when they enter Emerati territorial waters and can only open when they reach International Waters. Would the authorities consider a permanently moored vessel as being off-shore?
Casinos on reclaimed land
As already mentioned all these resort developments are on land that has been reclaimed from the Gulf. Does this fact and potentially the imposition of a restriction preventing local nationals from entering the casinos provide an exclusion from Islamic injunctions to allow for the development of several further integrated resort casinos in the UAE, in order to maximise tourist revenue?
There is actually precedent for the development of casinos on reclaimed land in the United Kingdom. Under the 1968 Gaming Act the 53 Permitted Areas for casinos were based on the boundaries of the former English and Welsh County Boroughs that contained an adult population of more than 125,000 in 1970. In Scotland the cities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow were added along with a number of seaside resorts whose population rose in the peak holiday months. Where County Boroughs had a boundary with the sea the extent of the Permitted Area extended to the low tide mean water mark (in other words it extended to include the beach down to the average low tide mark).
In 1999 London Clubs International applied for a new casino licence for premises at the Marina in Brighton. The Marina had been constructed by Brent Walker, a company that then operated a number of UK casinos. The costs spiralled as the site was reclaimed from the sea and a tunnel had to be built through the cliffs to provide access from the town. The company collapsed and the casino development did not proceed when the Marina was initially developed. Among the matters that the Gaming Licensing Committee had to decide was whether the premises fell within the area of the court’s jurisdiction. The Committee ruled in exercising their discretion to grant the casino licence that sufficient of the premises was within the Permitted Area – albeit that the actual entrance to the casino was indeed on reclaimed land that was beyond the 1970 low tide mean water mark!
A similar issue arose in Southampton in 2014 when the City Council held its competition to award a large casino licence. In that case part of the land on which the casino was to be constructed was in the River Solent adjacent to the Cruise Liner Terminal. Tidal river beds and harbours are in the main Crown Land and the authority was involved in complex negotiations to secure an interest in the land to enable a casino to be developed. The casino has still not been developed almost certainly because of the massive costs in reclaiming the land from the sea and re-locating the Red Funnel ferry port.
There is no suggestion that the Ras Al Khaimah authorities have adopted the principle from UK law. Could it be argued that because the land on which the resort is to be constructed was not originally part of the Emirate there is some justification for the project as part of the wider plans to boost the tourist economy? If local nationals are to be prohibited from using the gaming facilities then it would not appear possible for the open style nature of a Las Vegas Casino to be replicated. Almost certainly the minimum age for admission to a gaming area would be 21 given that is the age restriction for alcohol sales.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions to be addressed including, as reported by the tourist authority, the cultural, ethical and religious views that have to be balanced against the tourist potential.
Casinos in North African jurisdictions
With the exception of Algeria and Libya, the North African countries that border the Mediterranean coast from Morocco in the west to Egypt in the east have permitted the development of casinos. Morocco has 12 or so casinos with the majority being situated in coastal resorts along the Atlantic coast but with two in Marrakech including Morocco’s first, the Casino de Marrakech, which opened in 1952. There are also two further casinos in the Muslim majority Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. There are casinos in Tunisia in two tourist destinations, Sousse and Djerba. The Grand Casino de Djerba is operated by the French casino operator Group Partouche.
The best known casinos in the Middle East are those in Cairo and which are to be found in the major western operated hotels, including the Cairo Marriott, the Intercontinental, the Sheraton, the Caesars Casino in the Four Seasons, Accor’s Casino Barriere in the Sofitel, Crockfords Cairo operated in the Ritz Carlton by Genting and the famous London Club in the Ramses Hilton now operated by the Metropolitan Gaming Group. There are also casinos in the resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Taba.
Egyptian citizens are not permitted to gamble in casinos and foreign nationals have to provide their passports to gain entry. Additionally all gambling has to be conducted in US dollars and casinos are required to pay 50 percent of their revenues to the Egyptian government in tax. Thus it is possible to see from the nearest Islamic country with land-based casinos how restrictions could be imposed in the UAE in preventing local nationals entering any casinos that are in due course permitted along with preventing local currency being used to finance gambling.
Lottery style products and limited pool betting already permitted in Dubai
As referenced earlier in the article, we now turn to the activities that are already permitted in Dubai and some other Emirates. The ones we will consider are: Emirates Loto, Dubai Duty Free, Pool Betting at two Dubai racecourses and Raffles and Competitions.
1. Emirates Loto
This was launched across the Emirates in April 2020 and is perhaps the biggest development in recent times. It involves purchasing “collectables”, which then allow the purchase of tickets for weekly live draws held on Fridays and Saturdays. The collectables are bottles of water which are donated to the less well off. This was re-branded as Mahzooz in April 2021 and is operated by Ewings LLC and licensed in Abu Dhabi. It is accessible online and features the usual ball draw machine to select the six winning balls. The prizes run into millions of Dirhams and foreign nationals are allowed to participate and claim prizes.
Although the Emirates Lotto was launched across the UAE, Sharjah, which borders Dubai to the north, does not advertise the lottery. Following investment by Saudi Arabia in Sharjah all alcohol supplies and sales were prohibited and there is a far stricter application of Islamic law.
2. Dubai Duty Free
The Duty Free outlets at both Abu Dhabi and Dubai International Airports offer raffles with the chance to win a luxury car. This is a purely commercial operation operated airside and lends credence to the possibility of developing casinos if they are off-shore. Additionally alcohol is freely available airside at Dubai International Airport – again stressing the importance of the tourist economy in certain of the Emirates.
3. Racecourse Pool Betting
Horse racing is a huge pastime in Dubai. Although betting at a race track in Dubai is illegal, pari-mutuel pool betting is permitted at specific racecourses, namely Jebel Ali and the Meydan. There are several bets available:
- Win: as elsewhere a bet on a horse to win first place;
- Place: as elsewhere a bet on a horse to finish first or second;
- Show: a bet on a horse to finish first, second or third;
- Exacta: a bet on two horses to finish first and second, in that order;
- Trifecta: a bet on three horses to finish first, second and third, in that order;
- Superfecta: a bet on four horses to finish first, second, third and fourth, in that order.
4. Raffles and Competitions
There are all manner of promotions offered at petrol stations with the purchase of fuel allowing entry into prize draws. These operate in a similar manner to the product promotions that are an exempt form of gambling in the UK and elsewhere. The larger shopping malls run similar promotions.
Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah are the two Emirates that rely most on the tourist economy, there being seven in total. The massive expansion of tourist facilities in Dubai over the past 15 years has been quite breath-taking and we will follow the integrated resort projects planned by Las Vegas casino operators with great interest. The significant relaxation of the controls on the sale and supply of alcohol in Dubai in recent years is another demonstration of the importance of the tourist industry to the Dubai economy and is perhaps a sign that before too long casinos may indeed open on off-shore man-made islands. The Dubai rulers and authorities will be only too aware that the total prohibition of alcohol in neighbouring Sharjah severely impacted what was a flourishing tourist industry. As the European Court of Justice has ruled on many occasions the social, ethical, moral and religious beliefs of different countries have to be considered but for Islamic countries it is a more complicated balancing exercise.