Dubai: You might think the Gulf would be the last place to find lavish casinos bursting with shiny slot machines, video poker screens and mahogany gaming tables.
Don't bet on it.
Just beyond the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters limit of the UAE and its neighbouring Arab coastal states along Gulf shorelines, a new growing armada of international cruise liners are quietly operating on-board casinos replete with every game of chance found routinely on the ruby-red carpets of Monte Carlo and Las Vegas, XPRESS has learnt.
And the stakes just got higher with this week's inaugural arrival in Dubai of Royal Caribbean International's prized liner, Brilliance of the Seas, a virtual floating city that will host 2,000 holidaying guests each week for the remainder of the highly lucrative cruising season up to April.
Hamad Mohammad Bin Majren, executive director of business development at Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), said the addition of new cruise ships to Dubai's tourism industry will only bolster the economy.
"This is important to us," he said. "We have been working on this industry for the past 10 years. This is a growing tourism sector."
In an exclusive interview aboard the ship, Michael Bayley, Senior Vice-President International for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, said his company is fully aware that gaming is prohibited in the UAE and other coastal stops listed on the Brilliance's Gulf itinerary.
Bayley said they will only legally operate their Casino Royale aboard Brilliance of the Seas when the ship is in international waters.
Established maritime law defines "high seas" as international waters lying at least 12 nautical miles from a coastal state and thus beyond the jurisdiction of government laws and regulations applicable on land - the UAE is a signatory to the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty that universally recognises the territorial limit.
The 293-metre long, 12-deck leviathan's first call to port marks the entrance of the latest player in a growing high-stakes Gulf cruising industry forecast to more than double from 260,000 tourists who visited Dubai on 100 ships last year to 600,000 guests on more than 200 ships by 2015. Brilliance of the Seas will book 32,000 guests this first season alone.
On average, each tourist spends about Dh3,000 for Brilliance of the Seas' all-inclusive week-long cruise (excluding casino wagers) which begins from the home port of Dubai and steams at 24 knots for overnight stays in Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Muscat and Bahrain.
"Obviously, we comply with the regulations of offshore gaming," Bayley said shortly after hosting a VIP welcome aboard Brilliance which is at anchor in Dubai's Port Rashid where the liner will call home each season for the next several years.
Bayley helps oversee a global Royal Caribbean workforce of 50,000 employees and 38 cruise liners. "We don't operate [casinos] at any berth in the world. You have to be outside of a defined limit. As a standard operating procedure, we also comply with the national or regional rules for our gaming operation."
Bayley disagreed with suggestions that his firm - the second largest cruise operator in the world - is operating gaming facilities in a conservative region which frowns heavily upon casino-style entertainment. "We're not operating gambling in the region. When our ship goes into international waters, we're able to offer gambling," he said. "All of the cruise liners are doing it."
Cruise line operator Costa is going all out next month with the launch of its newest liner, Costa Deliziosa, in Dubai where the ship will compete head on with Royal Caribbean for tourism dollars
"The Costa Deliziosa, Costa's newest flagship, completed her official technical trials in the open sea successfully (last month). She will be inaugurated on February 23, 2010 in Dubai, which marks the first time the international locale has hosted a cruise ship naming," Costa officials said in a statement, promising a "spectacular blessing" of the vessel.
En route to Dubai, the inaugural cruise for Costa Deliziosa begins on February 5 from the northern Italian seaport of Savona. The European-based firm says on its website that the liner will also include a casino. It won't be the first ship to offer casino action by Costa, which is generally credited with opening up the cruise liner market in Dubai in 2006.
The firm has operated two other mega liners in the Gulf; Costa Europa (launched in 1986), which has its own gaming lounge called Lerna Casino, and Costa Luminosa (launched in 2009), which hosts its own Vega Casino.
Bayley said Brilliance of the Seas will lodge tourists from 60 different nationalities, ranging from the United States and Europe to India and the GCC. To date, Gulf nationals make up about roughly five per cent of passengers booked with Royal Caribbean, he said.
From Dubai, in March and April of 2011, it will add two 12-night round-trips to Mumbai, Goa and Kochi in India, Bayley said.
Hamdi Al Shiwi, a legal consultant and advocate, said the UAE is strict when it comes to illegal gambling. Doing so can lead to imprisonment up to three years, while running a gambling house can land perpetrators in jail for up to 10 years.
Al Shiwi said that foreign ships, airplanes or any other means of travel must abide by Emirati law while they are within UAE territory and, since gambling is prohibited by law, it shall be not practised even if a casino is available on a ship or a plane.
Vessels must refrain from any gambling until they leave the UAE.
According to law No 414 of the UAE Penal Code - "Each person who gambles is punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine not exceeding Dh20,000. The punishment shall be imprisonment or a fine if the crime occurred in a public place or a place open to the public or in a store or house prepared for gambling."
Al Shiwi added that a place that has been shut down for practising gambling shall not be reopened for any other activity, even if legal, without acquiring the approval of the Dubai Public Prosecution.
Brilliance of the Seas' aptly named Casino Royale is no shrinking violet, although it does boast an ornate floral motif amid ostentatious appointments of polished brass fittings, crystal chandeliers, stained glass portraits and a central goddess sculpture.
The rich surroundings play host to more than 190 slot machines, video gaming machines and roughly a dozen craps, blackjack and poker tables, which have proved popular when the liner has cruised the Mediterranean from her twin port of Barcelona, Spain, staff said.
"The Casino Royale is popular among our guests; some evenings it's packed," said a liner employee, noting that "most of our guests come for the slot machines".
A quick casino tour by XPRESS reveals the casino's slot machines were built by IGT of Nevada and use on-board computers and random number generating technology.
Popular slot favourites Double Diamond, Wheel of Fortune and Red White and Blue operate daily, save Mondays when the casino is closed. According to a promotional video at the casino entrance, Royal Caribbean offers first night "gaming lessons" for new guests who can learn how to compete against machine or other players. Casino Royal offers player tournaments for Black Jack, Texas Hold'em and slots.
There is a $50 (Dh184) minimum to play at the tables.
The same video shows one casino player named Morris clutching two banded stacks of cash for his win of $20,000 (Dh73,460) - his picture was taken under the casino section dubbed "Nouveau Riche".
The video also promises visitors the possibility of winning $20,000 (Dh73,460) for only a $1 (Dh3.67) wager playing Caribbean Stud Poker.
Brilliance of the Seas facts
- 90,090 gross tonnes,
- 962 feet long, 106 feet wide,
- 28 feet draft, 25 knots cruising speed, 12 passenger decks,
- 9 passenger elevators, 3 bow thrusters,
- smokeless gas turbines,
- 2,112 guests (double occupancy)
- 848 crew