Dubai Puts on Hold Plans to License Casino Operators While Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi Push Forward

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made significant milestones in efforts to perk up its economy by diversifying into legal casino gambling. After years of speculation, the Emirates created an official gaming regulator, the General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority (GCGRA), in September and enlisted a team of American gambling expats to run it, according to Reuters.

Despite having a legal framework for gaming in place, the plans for casino resort approval are proceeding at different paces across the country’s emirates. While Dubai has put the brakes on its casino licensing plans, its neighboring emirates of Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi are emerging as the current leaders in developing integrated resort projects within the UAE.

Wynn Resorts has already announced a multi-billion-dollar resort on Wynn Al Marjan Island in Ras Al Khaimah that will include UAE’s first casino when it opens in 2027. On its end, Abu Dhabi is exploring sites like Yas Island for a potential gaming development as officials weigh the economic and social factors.

The news comes as Caesars Entertainment, which recently added Everi content to its online casino app, plans to exit Dubai. Another potential operator, MGM Resorts International, is still determining if they will be able to set up a casino in the city.

Dubai Holds Off on Plans for Casino Licensing

Dubai has been at the forefront of bringing legal gambling to the UAE, but the capital emirate has put on hold any near-term plans to approve casino resorts for the city-state. The decision to postpone casino licensing has surprised many industry experts, given Dubai’s reputation for embracing innovation and its strong tourism sector.

Dubai’s senior government officials decided to prioritize Fintech over gambling following months-long deliberations. According to sources close to the matter, authorities believe that the outlook for the city’s tourism industry is robust enough that casinos may not be necessary to further boost visitor numbers.

The people privy to the discussions said the possibility of revisiting this idea could not be ruled out, although they could not say how long Dubai will put its casino licensing plans on hold. Instead, authorities are looking into bringing a poker series to the emirate, especially as part of the WSOP or WPT tournament circuit.

As the emirate that propelled the UAE to become a top global tourism destination, Dubai already attracts well over 14 million overnight visitors each year through attractions unrelated to gaming. For now, authorities are content to observe gaming progress in Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi as regional competition develops.

Dubai also stands to benefit from the influx of tourists visiting casinos in Ras Al Khaimah or Abu Dhabi, even if the city doesn’t approve a casino of its own. However, the decision will see Caesars Palace exit Dubai to pave the way for a Banyan Tree resort.

Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi Take the Lead

While Dubai has shelved its interim plans for integrated gaming resorts, neighboring Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi are pushing forward with their casino ambitions.

Wynn Resorts has already announced a $3.9 billion casino resort in Ras Al Khaimah, an emirate with roughly 450,000 people. The Wynn Al Marjan Island, expected to cost more than Dubai’s Atlantis The Palm and Burj Al Arab to build, will open UAE’s first casino in 2027.

Wynn’s Al Marjan Island project is slated to break ground in early 2024. It will include a casino, 1,000 hotel rooms, luxury villas, an artificial lagoon, and theme park attractions. As with Dubai, authorities in Ras Al Khaimah are considering the idea of welcoming a temporary poker series ahead of the launch of the integrated resort. 

Meanwhile, the emirate of Abu Dhabi is scouting for casino sites at Yas Island, especially near Ferrari World. They are also considering the industrial area adjacent to Khalifa Port and Al Reem Island. 

Yas Island already attracts millions of visitors annually to attractions like Yas Waterworld and Warner Bros. World, providing an established tourism base. The Khalifa Port area is being developed into a mixed-use community and would benefit from additional entertainment offerings. 

Officials in Abu Dhabi are weighing factors like integrated resort tax revenue projections, international case studies, and social impact studies to determine if and how to regulate gaming in the emirate.

Wynn Expects Early Monopoly in UAE Gaming Market

Wynn Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle stated they expect to receive one of the first UAE gaming licenses, potentially as early as the first quarter of 2024. This would allow them to take advantage of being the first global operator in the market. 

If Wynn’s Al Marjan Island opens in 2027, the operator will get a headstart of several years without direct competition from other integrated resorts. With UAE casinos and lotteries expected to generate up to $6.6 billion in gaming revenue yearly, Wynn Resorts will pull in a more significant share as the first operator to market.

Regulatory Progress Provides Investor Clarity

The UAE’s newly formed GCGRA held its inaugural meeting in late October and is responsible for drafting the country’s first gambling legislation. The body will license operators and set policies like tax rates, which could be in the low double digits. 

Regulators are studying international best practices and looking at examples like the gaming regulations of Cyprus and the Philippines as they develop their own policies. Analysts say this regulatory progress helps reassure investors, as many were awaiting further guidance on tax rates, ownership restrictions, and other critical issues before committing billions to major casino projects.

The UAE’s population of over 9 million residents and expats represents a large domestic market. International analysts view the country as an attractive long-term opportunity for integrated resorts and gaming once a mature regulatory framework and multiple operators are in place to drive revenues approaching Singapore’s levels over time.

Summing Up

While Dubai has postponed its plans for casino licensing, Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi are emerging as leaders in developing integrated resort projects within the UAE. Wynn Resorts expects to receive one of the first gaming licenses in the UAE, giving them an early monopoly in the market. This divergence in strategy could reshape the landscape of the UAE’s gaming industry, with implications for tourism and economic development.

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