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As UAE prepares to legalize gaming, MGM confident in position

Hornbuckle says the company’s non-gaming project has set aside a 150,000-square-foot space for a casino if the emirate legalizes gaming.
Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

Research analysts have yet to weigh in on the potential of a United Arab Emirates (UAE) gaming market that Bloomberg Intelligence predicted could be worth up to $6.6 billion a year in casino revenue.

The silence didn’t deter MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle.

In remarks last week as part of an investors presentation hosted by Bank of America, Hornbuckle said the company has been exploring opportunities in the Middle Eastern country governed by Sharia law since 2015.

MGM is partnering with a subsidiary of Dubai-based wasl Asset Management Group on a 25-acre non-gaming resort development on a man-made island in the emirate. The project will include three hotel towers totaling 1,500 rooms branded under the Aria, MGM Grand and Bellagio names.

However, Hornbuckle said a 150,000-square-foot space is being created on the site for one of two amenities — either a casino or retail center. He said MGM’s involvement in the project happened long before gaming discussions ever began.

“The UAE is a fascinating opportunity,” Hornbuckle said. “The long-term potential on [gaming in the UAE] we think is pretty compelling.”

Dubai is already home to 140,000 hotel rooms. As a comparison, Las Vegas has more than 151,000 rooms.

Ten days ago, the UAE announced the formation of a gaming regulatory authority established to create and oversee the framework for a national lottery and casino gaming.

Former MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren was named chairman of the General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority (GCGRA) and former Missouri gaming regulator and Gaming Laboratories International executive Kevin Mullally was named CEO.

Under the plan, each of the UAE’s seven emirates — Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah — can decide if they want to legalize gaming.

“Reportedly, there's a gaming decree that has been signed but not released,” Hornbuckle said. “What has to happen here is each ruler will rule whether they want gaming or not.”

Hornbuckle said MGM is content waiting for the market to shake out. Construction on the MGM project has begun and Dubai has an active tourist market and the emirate may take its time deciding to add gaming.

Murren was Hornbuckle’s predecessor at MGM and both signed off on the development deal with wasl in 2017. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and the ruler of Dubai, owns part of the wasl group.

“We will wait for Dubai to hopefully have this become a reality,” Hornbuckle said of what he predicts could be a $3 billion gaming revenue opportunity for the emirate.

The UAE market could be one of the most lucrative in the world. Macau was considered the world’s largest gaming market prior to the pandemic, when casinos in the Chinese Special Administrative Region produced $36.6 billion in casino revenue in 2019. Singapore’s two casinos produced an estimated $6 billion in annual revenue, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

Rendering provides a view of the planned $3.9 billion Wynn Al Marjan Island in the United Arab Emirates. The project is expected to open in 2027. (Photo courtesy of Wynn Resorts).
Rendering provides a view of the planned $3.9 billion Wynn Al Marjan Island in the United Arab Emirates. The project is expected to open in 2027. (Photo courtesy of Wynn Resorts)

Surpassing Singapore

Angela Hanlee, a senior gaming and hospitality analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, said legal gaming in UAE could surpass Singapore, which has just two casinos, including the Las Vegas Sands-owned Marina Bay Sands.

MGM’s history with Dubai goes back 20 years when Infinity World, the emirate’s investment arm, acquired a 50 percent stake in the $7.9 billion CityCenter, the Strip’s largest-ever development which includes the 4,000-room Aria. Infinity World’s investment helped complete CityCenter, which ran into financial issues during the recession before its 2009 opening.

MGM Resorts said in July 2021 that it was paying $2.125 billion to buy out Infinity World’s 50 percent stake, ending Dubai’s involvement in the project.

The company is not alone in the UAE.

Wynn Resorts is building a $3.9 billion integrated resort development on the man-made Al Marjan Island in Ras Al Khaimah. Wynn announced the project — the first legal gaming operation in the UAE — 16 months ago. Wynn Resorts CEO Craig Billings said last month the company should be granted its license to operate a casino in Ras Al Khaimah “imminently” even though the project won’t open until 2026.

“I can assure you that Wynn is not in the ground without a clear understanding [of the process],” Hornbuckle said.

Caesars Entertainment opened the non-gaming Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai and The Residences at Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai in 2018 in partnership with Dubai Holding. However, on Wednesday, Singapore-based Banyan Tree Hotels announced it was replacing Caesars as the properties’ operator in November. 

The Middle East has long frowned on gambling, which is prohibited under Islam. But competition for tourism from Saudi Arabia and Qatar has changed the landscape. Hornbuckle said he expects other emirates will consider gaming, including Abu Dhabi, “which I find interesting since it's the heart of the government.”

The challenge for other emirates is to match Dubai’s infrastructure, which includes the Dubai International Airport, the fifth-busiest in the world servicing more than 66 million passengers in 2022, according to the Airports Council International.

“We're already there and, we hope and believe, particularly with the ruler as our partner, that we can push that project forward to include gaming. I can't speak to the timing,” Hornbuckle said.

Updated at 11:14 a.m. on 9/13/2023 to reflect Caesars departing its Dubai property.


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