DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — American casino developer Wynn Resorts has set its sights on a new market, and one that has never before allowed gambling: the United Arab Emirates.
The Nevada-based casino giant on Tuesday announced a multibillion-dollar deal with the UAE emirate of Ras al-Khaimah that will see it open a 1,000-room luxury hotel with 10 restaurants and lounges, a spa, a convention facility, shopping venues and a gaming area.
The announcement came in tandem with a statement from the Ras al-Khaimah Tourism Development Authority introducing a new division, called the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation, which will regulate “integrated resorts” that include hotel operations, entertainment spaces, restaurants, spas, retail shops, convention areas and “gaming.”
“Gaming” is often used synonymously with gambling in the context of hospitality and leisure venues, though it was not clear whether this explicitly meant cash betting. RAKTDA was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
“The newly announced integrated resort is still in its early design phase and due for completion by 2026,” a statement from Marjan, the Ras al-Khaimah developer involved in the deal, said, according to the Associated Press. “These are all the details that can be provided at this stage.”
The UAE, famous for its glitzy skyscrapers, mammoth shopping malls and rolling deserts, has often been compared to Las Vegas — save for a few major differences, the biggest of which is that the Arab sheikhdom’s official religion is Islam, which forbids gambling.
While alcohol consumption and wearing bikinis on the beach have long been allowed in most of the country, setting it apart from many of its Middle Eastern neighbors as a foreigner-friendly expat hub, there has been no place for gambling — even with the building of a Caesars Palace in Dubai.
If the announcement by the Ras al-Khaimah Tourism Development Authority on Tuesday does indeed define gaming to include gambling, it would be very significant for the emirate and the wider country. The move would represent yet another step in a long and accelerating series of liberalizing reforms meant to diversify the UAE’s traditionally oil-based economy and compete with its neighbors and the wider world for tourism, investment and foreign talent.
“The region offers tremendous potential for the hospitality and tourism industry, and we are excited about the prospect of developing an integrated resort in Ras Al Khaimah,” Wynn Resorts’ newly appointed CEO Craig Billings said in a press release, describing Al Marjan Island, where the resort will be built, as “a pristine setting and an ideal greenfield location.”
Al Marjan is a man-made island less than an hour away from Dubai International Airport.
The new gaming regulator will follow “global best practices in the regulation of gaming that operate as part of integrated resorts across various jurisdictions worldwide,” RAKTDA said in its statement, and will consider the “social, cultural, and environmental landscape of the Emirate and cover licensing, taxation, operational procedures, and consumer safeguards.”
“The foremost priority of this new division is to create a robust framework that will ensure responsible gaming at all levels,” the statement said.
Ras al-Khaimah is the UAE’s northernmost emirate, and has long worked to attract tourism while struggling to compete with the country’s commercial and tourism capital of Dubai. The UAE is made up of seven emirates, or sheikhdoms, ruled by individual leaders but who ultimately are allegiant to the national leadership in Abu Dhabi.
Wynn Resorts as a company is known for its opulent casinos and hotels, most notably in the infamous gambling hubs of Las Vegas and Macau.