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Saudi Arabia's Secret Casino?

The picture that accompanies this article is a screen grab widely shared on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, showing hundreds of Saudi men playing cards. If you look closely, one of the players seems to be a young lad, barely a teenager. This photo and others show men wearing traditional Qamis tunics and scarves playing frenzied card games in a vast room. These images have circulated on social media for the past couple of years. Is there a secret casino in Saudi Arabia?

What does the Qur'an say about gambling?

There are three verses (2:219, 5:90, and 5:91) that sum up that Muslims are forbidden to gamble. In the Qur'an (5:90), the scripture reads

  • "O you who believe! Intoxicants and games of chance, and divination by arrows, are an abomination of Satan's handwork. Eschew such abomination that you may prosper."

Muhammad goes even further, saying (5:91)

  • "Satan only wants to cause between you and Allah animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?"

Notice that Muhammad throws in the word "intoxicants," meaning, of course, "wine or alcohol." Alcohol and gambling are haram (impermissible). Even if alcohol is not around, gambling is still haram.

The rationale for this ruling is that Islam does not allow speculative investments. Gambling means giving or taking money or goods depending on something not known how it will end. Gambling is a way of obtaining undeserved money, which makes a man forget his Creator, prevents him from performing prayers, leads him to laziness, eliminates his strength to work, and causes grudge and enmity among people. Gambling means to get a person's money or goods unjustly and to steal one's money or goods deliberately. It is always seen that this destructive evil prohibited strictly by the religion of Islam destroys many families. Those who gamble around a table until morning due to the excitement caused by greed and ambition lose their health, wealth, ethics, and money; they lose their human feeling. Those who win today lose on other days.

All games of chance are played to enjoy and spend time at first. As man wins, he plays for the sake of the pleasure and ambition of winning. As he loses, he plays to get back what he has lost. Then, he becomes a gambler. In terms of statistics, the National Center for Responsible Gaming reports that approximately one percent of the adult population in the US has a severe gambling problem. It would probably be the same in other countries that allow gaming.

So, back to the picture of the card games. The images were indeed taken in Saudi Arabia. What you are watching is a Belote (also spelled Baloot) tournament in a gymnasium in Riyadh. Belote is a trick-taking card game similar to Bridge or even Hearts. There is prize money and trophies for winning in tournament play, but no wagers between the players or offsite bets on any of the players. Eighty thousand people registered online in this tournament, but only 12,000 were randomly selected to participate. It was noted that the retired imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca attended, walking around chatting with players.

Do Other Islamic Countries Allow Gambling?

Yes, they do but read how and why they do it. First, Egypt has the most casinos of all the Arab countries. Four cities have almost 24 casinos. Casinos are only allowed in 4- and 5-star hotels in tourist destinations. Egyptian citizens are not allowed to play in the casinos. Foreigners and expats must show a passport to get in. Most casinos only accept US dollars or Euros, not the Egyptian pound. The rationale for the casinos is to draw tourists and travelers to the country, provide an entertaining stay and make money at it. Having worked in the gaming industry in the US, I know how profitable casinos can be. The Egyptian government gets 50 percent of the casinos' earnings. With only a small middle class to tax, resort and casino earnings make up a substantial part of the government's revenues.

The only other news in the Arab world to share is in the UAE. The United Arab Emirates is composed of seven small sheikhdoms. The largest and most exciting city in the UAE, Dubai strictly goes by Islamic law. Even online gambling is haram; just don't get caught. However, it was just announced in January that Ras al-Khaimah, the fifth-largest emirate, unveiled a multibillion-dollar deal with a casino. Based out of Las Vegas, Wynn Resorts plans to build a 1,000 room 4-star resort with a gaming area. In the US, gambling companies changed their terminology to "gaming" in the 1980s. Gaming can mean a casino with roulette wheels and blackjack tables, or it could be something more innocent, such as e-sports activities. The hotel won't open until 2026, which will allow a lot of time to run this concept up the flagpole to see how much flak they get.

A quick review of the Islamic countries in Asia shows the same footprint. Malaysia has a significant Chinese (20 percent of the total population) and Indian (10 percent) non-Muslim population. Their first and only casino opened in the 1970s, and despite the significant non-Muslim population, no other casinos have been allowed to open.

Next door to Malaysia is Singapore. I visited their casino back in 2015. They operate their casino similar to the Egyptian rules; only foreigners and expats can play. The Muslim population in Singapore made it known that gambling is haram, but as Singapore and Egypt attest, gaming draws tourism.

Almost in every country, online betting has been increasing in usage. While it may not be legal in every country, it is usually available. The most popular choices for online betting are badminton, cricket, and football (soccer). In some cases, the online sites refuse to accept bets in local currency, but credit cards in USD or Euros are widely accepted.

Gaming Industry Rules

Having worked in the gaming industry, I will close with my observations. First, it is fun to visit a casino; the bright lights, girls in costumes offering free drinks, the noise from the blackjack dealers, the whir of the roulette wheel and the slot machines, and watching other players. Second, there are cameras everywhere. Know that they are watching you (and the dealers). If you try to cheat, they can and will lock you up. They usually have a jail cell in the back. If they think you are trying to cheat but can't prove it, they will ask you to leave. Third, know the house is going to win. They don't stay in business if the guests win. Guests sometimes win, but it is usually few and far between. It depends on what game you play as to how fast you lose your money. If you consume the free drinks, you will lose it faster. Last but not least, while you may go into a casino for fun and entertainment, the owners and managers of the casino are in it for profit, and the laws of any governing municipalities support the casino. It's hard for me to let go of that environment, so when I go into a casino, I let my wife do the gambling because I know what's happening behind the scenes.

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