Turbulent Times for Middle East Casinos
The protests and violence in countries across North Africa and the Middle East in the first half of 2011 have shown how rapidly the geopolitical situation in the region can change. Of course, running any business in such a volatile environment is fraught with risk and the region’ casinos are by no means exempt. The majority of the casinos are intended for the international tourist market and, as a result, their fortunes have waxed and waned over the decades amid wars, revolutions and different political regimes.
But several years before this current unrest Tunisia’ casino sector had already been shrinking with a number of properties closing. GBGC’ research suggests that there are three remaining casinos still operating. Four casinos are believed to have closed their doors over the last decade.
The French casino operator Groupe Partouche runs the Grand Pasino Djerba on the island of Djerba, which is a popular destination for tourists. Tunisia’ other two casinos are in another popular tourist resort of Hammamet. With governments advising caution to any of their citizens choosing to travel to Tunisia in the present climate, visitor numbers to the casinos can only suffer if the country’ political uncertainty persists.
The anti-government protests in Tunisia inspired similar action in other countries and Egypt saw large demonstrations in the capital Cairo in January and February 2011. After several weeks of protests President Hosni Mubarak resigned from power after 30 years’ rule.
Egypt has a much more developed casino sector than Tunisia. There are around 30 casinos in Egypt. Most of these are to be found in Cairo but the tourist resort of Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea coast also has around half a dozen casinos attached to the hotel resorts, such as the Sonesta Beach Resort and Casino, Coral Bay Resort and Casino, and the Casino Royale in the Maritim Jolie Ville Resort which is run by Casinos Austria International (CAI). CAI also runs the Casino Semiramis at the Semiramis InterContinental Hotel in Cairo, which opened in 1990.
As well as CAI there are a number of other international casino companies involved in the Egyptian market. The International Group of Gaming and Resorts runs three casinos in Cairo, including Les Ambassadeurs Casino in the Pyramisa Hotel.
French casino group Lucien Barrière has one casino in Egypt, the Casino El Gezirah Barrière within the Sofitel El Gezirah Hotel. At over 500 square metres the casino is one of the largest in the country and offers 13 tables and 35 slot machines.
Genting UK is set to enter the Egyptian market in 2012 too. In December 2009 it was chosen as the operator of the casino that will be part of the Nile Ritz Carlton Hotel (formerly the Nile Hilton) which is currently undergoing renovation.
At the height of the protests in late January the Financial Times’ correspondent in Cairo reported that some casinos in Cairo has been singled out for attacks. It was even claimed that two people were killed in a firebomb attack on the Ramses casino. It was speculated that the attacks were carried out by Islamic radicals because the casinos symbolised “Western vice and loose morals”. Over the last few decades extremists have attacked western tourists at sites in Egypt but the perpetrators of the casino violence have not been proven.
The casino first opened in 1959. The casino quickly became one of the Middle East’s leading gambling facilities because of Lebanon’ wealth created by the nation’ banking industry. The visits of Aristotle Onassis to the casino also helped promote the Casino du Liban as a favoured destination for the jet set. But in 1975 the start of the civil war forced the casino to function intermittently until 1989 when it completely closed for business.
On 4 December 1996 the Casino du Liban re-opened its doors to the public after US$50m-worth of extensive reconstruction and refurbishment. The Intra Investment Company owns 51% of the casino, 48% is owned by the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry, with the remainder controlled by Kuwaitis and other Arab investors. The Finance Ministry collects 40% of the total gross revenues of the casino each year.
Moving with the times the Casino du Liban launched its first Texas Hold’em poker tournament in 2007 and today 65% of the casinos visitors are Lebanese and 25% from other Arab nations.
There were immediately calls from opponents to gambling to close the casino and in April 2011, just four months after opening, the casino was closed by government officials. The move came as part of a package of reforms to pacify anti-government protests that have strengthened in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad’ regime intended to make a series of concessions to the Muslim sector, and gambling is viewed as particularly un-Islamic.
Across various parts of the region casinos have shown their resilience in the face of wide ranging hazards and tribulations, some of which have been ongoing for many years. Many of the region’ properties are reliant on foreign tourists and any instability or uncertainty in a country makes its influence felt on casino businesses very quickly. One heartening aspect is the example of the Casino du Liban in Lebanon which has survived long periods of enforced closure over recent decades to reopen and take bets again.