Arab World Enters Casino Scene with New Gaming Authority

By  //  October 19, 2023

Over the past five years, Saudi Arabia has undergone a significant transformation, especially in the entertainment sector. This change is evident in the government’s decision in 2018 to lift the 30-year ban on cinemas.

By the close of 2021, the nation boasted 45 movie theatres, showcasing over 1,000 films. This evolution in Saudi Arabia’s entertainment landscape is aligned with the country’s Vision 2030 economic diversification initiative. 

Under this vision, Travel, Tourism, and Entertainment have been identified as priority sectors. The Saudi Arabian government is keen on increasing domestic household expenditure on entertainment and leisure activities. Furthermore, there’s a concerted effort to position Saudi Arabia as a leading global travel destination.

Parallel to these developments, the Arab world, traditionally recognized for its conservative approach to many international practices, is showing signs of openness to the global casino industry. A testament to this shift is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) establishing the General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority. 

The establishment indicates the UAE’s inclination towards potentially legalizing gambling. Such progressive steps in the region have captured the attention of major casino operators globally. Observing these trends, it wouldn’t be surprising if other countries in the region, like Kuwait, consider initiatives such as launching the best online casinos in Kuwait.

The General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority: An Overview

The establishment of the General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority is not merely a bureaucratic addition; it represents a strategic move by the UAE to regulate and oversee national lottery and commercial gaming. The state-run Wam news agency announced the creation of this authority, highlighting its potential role in shaping the UAE’s future gaming and lottery industry.

Kevin Mullally, who previously served as the executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission, has been appointed the CEO of the newly formed authority. Mullally expressed his enthusiasm about the appointment, emphasizing his commitment to establishing a robust regulatory framework for the UAE’s burgeoning gaming sector.

Furthermore, Jim Murren, identified as a former chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, has been named the chairman of the authority’s board of directors. Murren’s association with the Emirates is not new; he played a pivotal role in developing the $9.2 billion CityCenter partnership between MGM Resorts International and Dubai World, which was inaugurated in 2009.

The Implications for the UAE and Beyond

Establishing this authority has broader implications for the UAE’s economic and tourism sectors. For years, there have been speculations about the UAE considering casinos as a potential revenue source and a boost to its tourism industry. Dubai, known for its extravagant lifestyle and luxury tourism, has been at the centre of these speculations.

Historical data suggests that Dubai had previously contemplated introducing casinos. However, these plans were reportedly shelved out of respect for the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the country’s first president post-unification in 1971. Yet, the rumors persisted, especially with Queen Elizabeth 2 ship, which opened as a hotel in Dubai in 2018, still housing its deactivated slot machines.

Recent developments indicate a renewed interest in the casino industry, with major casino firms like MGM, the Bellagio, and Aria undertaking construction projects in the region. Additionally, in 2022, the UAE’s northernmost emirate, Ras al-Khaimah, announced a significant deal with Las Vegas-based casino giant Wynn Resorts.

The Broader Middle Eastern Context

The decision to potentially introduce casinos in the UAE is not just a local phenomenon; it has broader implications for the Middle East. Due to Islamic principles, most Middle Eastern countries forbid gambling. Yet, countries like Egypt and Lebanon have operational casinos.

The introduction of casinos in the UAE could significantly enhance its tourism industry, potentially attracting many Chinese travellers who had reduced their visits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Establishing a federal authority indicates that Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, might play a central role in overseeing casino operations across the country.

However, the UAE’s federal structure, which grants substantial power to the local rulers of its seven emirates, especially concerning social issues, might influence the operational dynamics of these casinos. For instance, the emirate of Sharjah prohibits the sale of alcohol. Given these local nuances, it remains to be seen how each emirate will approach the casino industry.

Challenges Ahead

While the potential introduction of casinos promises economic benefits, it also brings challenges. With their substantial cash flows, casinos can become hotspots for money laundering. 

The UAE, especially Dubai, has previously been highlighted for its real estate market being used by sanctioned individuals for parking their assets. The introduction of casinos might exacerbate these concerns.

Final Thoughts

The UAE’s decision to establish the General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority marks a significant shift in its approach to the global casino industry. While the economic benefits are evident, the challenges cannot be overlooked. As the Arab world takes this bold step, the global casino industry awaits the unfolding of a new chapter in the Middle East.