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Dubai has no current plans to allow gambling despite ongoing speculation, tourism official says

Bad news for those who expected Dubai to become a new Vegas: the emirate has no current plans to allow gaming, a tourism official said on Wednesday, according to a Reuters report. The statement comes as neighboring Ras Al Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates’ seven emirates, prepares to open its doors to gambling.

"As far as I'm concerned, there is no gaming that's coming around the corner for us," said Dubai senior tourism official Issam Kazim, according to the cited source. The statement follows months of intense speculation that the UAE would be opening to gambling in an effort to gain a competitive edge against Saudi Arabia, which is also seeking to become a tourism hub.

January’s announcement that Ras Al Khaimah would begin allowing gaming sparked industry interest in the Gulf, a region that has traditionally imposed stricter Islamic rules than other parts of the Middle East. The emirate will see the development of a multibillion-dollar integrated resort from casino giant Wynn on the man-made Al Marjan Island, a first for the region.

Speculation soon arose that Dubai, which is home to a Caesars Palace property since 2018 -the only one in the company’s portfolio without a casino-, could follow suit. Dubai will also become home to a casino-less MGM Resorts’ luxury venue on an artificial island about 10 km away, currently under construction. But the two heavyweight operators will have to make do with hospitality alone, at least for the time being, according to Kazim’s statement.

Rumors about gambling expanding in the UAE have been in motion for a time now, and last month two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters that it would be permitted “in some form.” The alleged plans would allow each emirate to decide whether, and how, to regulate gambling, in a similar way to how Sharjah prohibits alcohol sales while other emirates do not.

While sources told Reuters this would happen “soon,” the new report indicates Dubai, which is seen as the major prize by global casino operators, perhaps should not be in their immediate plans. But if gaming were enabled, opportunities could be staggering: the location, a major tourist magnet that remained open through most global pandemic-related lockdowns, hosted under 4 million overnight international visitors in the first quarter of this year.

This figure finds visitation up over 200% from the same period a year earlier, while hotel occupancy has improved to 82%. In the pre-pandemic year of 2019, Dubai welcomed about 16.73 million visitors, a share of potential gamblers most operators would love to cater to. According to Kazim, it was the fourth most-visited city in the world pre-pandemic, and aspires to reach the top spot.

“Like anybody, if a license is able to be bid for, any global gaming company is going to want to be actively involved in the conversation,” Anthony Costa, regional president at Caesars Palace, told Reuters last month in regards to gambling potentially opening in Dubai.

So far, it still remains cloudy how RAK, the only emirate decided to go forward with gaming at the time, will materialize this ambition. The emirate, which said it would push for responsible gaming, requires the removal of a prohibition on gambling from the federal penal code, and is working on regulations through the newly created Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation.

A likely scenario is RAK limiting gambling to foreigners at integrated resorts, in an effort to help drive tourism. Additionally, experts believe the UAE probably won’t seek to rely primarily on gaming revenues, instead offering gaming as part of a wider entertainment offering, a similar approach to that Singapore has to the industry.

In a call to discuss Q1 earnings earlier this week, Wynn officials updated investors on this UAE development. “We’ve moved quickly into design on our project in the UAE and I grow more excited about the opportunity with each iteration of that design,” the CEO Craig Billings commented, as reported by Las Vegas Review-Journal.

He further explained Wynn plans large-scale water and light spectacles “akin to the Lake of Dreams in Las Vegas” and a room product “that takes advantage of the unique aspects of the site.” “The island, which is really a blank canvas for us, presents amazing opportunities to do what we do best,” the CEO commented. A blank canvas that, for now, isn’t available in Dubai.


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