A notable new development is arriving on the shores of the Arabian Gulf after one of the world’s largest casino operators formalised its upcoming project in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In an April press release, Wynn Resorts, the Las Vegas-headquartered builder and operator of high-end resorts and casinos, whose portfolio includes the Encore Boston Harbor Casino Hotel and Wynn Palace in Macau, said that the Wynn Al Marjan Island will open in early 2027. Wynn Resorts first announced the multi-billion-dollar project in January 2022. It is developing the resort alongside local partners Marjan and RAK Hospitality Holding.

The project is a landmark moment not only for the UAE, but for the whole of the Gulf region, where gambling is outlawed, meaning all eyes will be on what exactly the casino will offer to its patrons. Wynn Resorts’ arrival also comes at a time when the UAE is looking to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons by attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) into a variety of sectors. The country is also keen to maintain its reputation as a tourism hotspot in the Middle East, as well as a location that offers a favourable quality of life for expat workers.

How has a casino been approved in the UAE?

The Wynn Al Marjan Island will be Wynn Resorts’ first foray in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Located on Al Marjan Island, a man-made archipelago of four islands off the coast of RAK, the resort will have 1,500 rooms, suites and villas and will host various entertainment options, a gaming area and 24 dining and lounge experiences. Al Marjan is located a 15-minute drive from RAK International Airport and about 45 minutes from Dubai International Airport.

Wynn Resorts’ decision to enter RAK came as the RAK Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) was establishing a new division focused on the regulation of integrated resorts. RAKTDA said that foremost priority of this new division is to create a robust framework that will ensure ‘responsible gaming’ at all levels.

In the context of integrated hospitality and leisure, gaming would suggest some form of gambling. That is, after all, what casinos are known to offer all around the world. However, neither Wynn Resorts’ press release nor RAKTDA’s statement explicitly states what games will be permitted, their timeline of implementation or whether this gaming will be restricted to foreigners.

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Neither Wynn Resorts nor RAKTDA were able to offer a fuller definition of what ‘gaming’ would entail when contacted by Investment Monitor.

Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, believes that, regardless of how ‘gaming’ is eventually defined, the casino will draw in a high level of tourists, on a domestic and international scale.

“It may also open new and sustainable FDI flows beyond the traditional sectors like oil and gas, real estate, construction and financial services,” he says. “By incorporating gaming into the economy, the UAE will add a new dimension to its tourism and entertainment offerings.”

Can RAK become a UAE tourism hotspot?

Dubai, the UAE’s commercial hub, tends to attract the bulk of the tourists and FDI coming into the country. Dubai attracted 26 of the UAE’s 41 FDI projects in the tourism sector in 2022, according to GlobalData figures. In comparison, RAK attracted just four tourist investments across the same 12 months.

RAK is, however, looking to up its tourism game, focusing on nature and adventure tourism, as well as meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. Under RAKTDA’s Tourism Vision 2030 strategy, the emirate hopes to become a regional leader in sustainable tourism, targeting more than three million annual visitors by 2030.

In addition to Wynn Resorts, a spokesperson for the Al Marjan Island resort told Investment Monitor that Nobu Hospitality has announced the development of Nobu Al Marjan Island, containing a luxury hotel and branded residences. 

“Further, Marriott International and Three Musketeers Hospitality, a UAE-based real estate developer, are bringing Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts to Ras Al Khaimah with the new Le Méridien Al Marjan Island Resort & Spa, which will add 350 keys to the emirate’s hospitality offering by 2026,” added the spokesperson.

Will other emirates follow RAK’s casino move?

Under UAE federal law, gambling is illegal throughout the country. In fact, under chapter six of the UAE’s penal code, anyone caught gambling can face imprisonment of up to two years and a maximum fine of Dh50,000 ($13,600).

At present, gamblers searching for casinos in the MENA region must travel to either Egypt or Lebanon. However, as the opening of the Wynn Al Marjan Island draws closer and its gaming rules are clarified, other emirates will pay close attention to what kind of reception receives from both locals and tourists. Whether they would be able to amend their laws or regulations to attract gaming and gambling organisations is another matter.

“Emirati officials will ultimately need to delineate the line between gaming and gambling more clearly, given the socio-religious sensitivities associated with the industry,” says Mogielnicki. “I suspect it will be heavily regulated.”

It seems highly unlikely that RAK will be transformed into a Middle Eastern version of Las Vegas or Macau. However, the ushering through of this casino shows that the emirate is looking to think outside the box when it comes to attracting attention away from not just Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but also the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If it is a success then both foreign investors and local authorities in other emirates will looking to emulate that, meaning RAK’s gamble could have big repercussions for the whole region.