Dubai appears ready to legalize gambling. Does Marriott’s new partner MGM Resorts have an advantage?


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Las Vegas and Macau might be the world’s leading casino resort destinations, but a potential third might soon join their ranks in a surprising location.

The United Arab Emirates is poised to be the first country in the Persian Gulf region to legalize casino resorts. The UAE launched a new regulatory body, called the General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority, with the intent of creating a “regulatory framework for a national lottery and commercial gaming,” according to Emirati state media WAM.

The move might be a potential head-scratcher for some, given gambling is seen at odds with Islam and Sharia law that often guides various Middle Eastern governments. But the UAE (the emirate of Dubai, particularly) and other parts of the region have increasingly relaxed laws, especially for tourists.

Former MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren was tapped to chair the GCGRA while longtime casino industry veteran Kevin Mullaly will serve as CEO. But don’t take the MGM connection as any sign the casino resort company is going to get any head start at developing a Dubai megaresort.

Both MGM Resorts, which recently announced a new U.S. partnership with Marriott International, and Wynn Resorts were already underway with plans to build up their respective presence in the UAE before the government’s new gaming authority had officially been announced.

Why casino brands are looking to Dubai

The UAE’s moving to legalize casino gambling isn’t out of left field. The leaders of major casino resort owners signaled in recent years plans to open properties in the UAE and indicated they expected legalization was just around the corner.

MGM Resorts first announced plans for a non-gaming Dubai resort in 2017, but the direction of that property appeared to include a casino floor when CEO William Hornbuckle spoke to investors on an earnings call earlier this year.

“As it relates to Dubai, that property continues to evolve,” he said on the call this spring. “The owners want to upgrade the property, I think, with gaming in mind. But it’s up to Abu Dhabi and the national government to ultimately decide … We’re hoping ‘any day.’ But I got to believe as the summer fulfills itself, we’ll hear more news on that.”

Hornbuckle indicated a preference to develop in Dubai but said other emirates could also be in consideration depending on how the legalization effort went.

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MGM’s competitor Wynn Resorts also has plans for a nearly $4 billion UAE Resort. The property, Wynn Al Marjan Island, is expected to feature 1,500 guest rooms and villas and be in Ras Al Khaimah, an emirate about 45 minutes from Dubai.

Even before the GCGRA was announced, Wynn Resorts noted the planned resort would have a “gaming area,” which many took as a signal gaming legalization was on the horizon.

While many have hyped the potential contradiction of legalized gaming in a predominantly Muslim nation, there are other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, such as Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, that allow casinos. Malaysia also permits gambling.

Murren’s Marriott connection

Murren, the new GCGRA chair, was named the new CEO of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection in May. The relatively new and growing fleet of superyachts sails under the branding of one of Marriott’s best-known luxury brands and has been seen as a smart gateway for getting loyal hotel customers onto the seas.

His more than 12 years heading up MGM Resorts was seen as a period of significant growth for the company, including the development of CityCenter — known today as the Aria Campus — in Las Vegas. Dubai World, the investment arm of the Dubai government, was a stakeholder in the Aria Campus until MGM announced plans in 2021 to buy out its partner.

Prior to serving as CEO, Murren was the company’s chief financial officer and played a major role in MGM acquiring Mirage Resorts in 2000 and Mandalay Resort Group in 2005. Murren’s time in the top job at MGM Resorts was also during a time when the brand moved beyond Las Vegas and into gaming markets like Detroit, western Massachusetts and just outside Washington, D.C.

But it was Murren’s successor, William Hornbuckle, who led the company at the time of its announcement this summer of a plan to partner with Marriott to bring 17 U.S. MGM Resorts properties into the hotel giant’s booking and loyalty programs.

Don’t start counting your Bonvoy points yet

Just because MGM and Marriott are partnering up in the U.S. at the beginning of October doesn’t mean Bonvoy members should start planning to deploy their points on a Dubai casino resort stay anytime soon. It will be years before anything opens its doors, for starters.

There are still limited details on what the partnership at full rollout will look like beyond clear signals it will be a deeper relationship than what MGM Resorts is winding down with Hyatt on its Las Vegas properties. Unless the Marriott-MGM marriage goes global, Marriott loyalists will have to stick to the world’s largest hotel company’s legacy hotels in the UAE.

Given that some of those hotels include the St. Regis Downtown Dubai, the Dubai Edition and the Bulgari Resort Dubai, it doesn’t appear Bonvoy members are losing out.

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