Bill Hornbuckle predicts up to four UAE casinos will be licensed, he is hoping to be one of the chosen few, as are his rivals over on Marjan Island in Ras Al Khaimah.
The CEO of MGM Resorts has shared his expectation that the UAE could greenlight up to four casinos, including one in his own development: The MGM in Dubai. Bill Hornbuckle said at the Global Gaming Conference in Las Vegas this week that MGM is building a “podium and pedestal” that “could house a casino,” on the island in Dubai.
Hornbuckle shared the news in response to a question about the upcoming Wynn Al Marjan Island – which has a confirmed casino but is yet to secure any kind of license. The $3.9 billion Wynn will be in Ras Al Khaimah, overseen by a new arm of the emirate’s tourism authority called the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation.
“Yes. We were there early. We have a project, now underway,” Hornbuckle said at the conference. “This island has an MGM, a Bellagio, and an Aria on it. We’re now building a podium and pedestal that could house a casino. We think there will be three or four [casinos] in the Emirates. It’s up to each ruler to decide what they want to do and where they want to do it.”
“I’d love to be in Dubai with an operating product with a casino in it, but one step and one day at a time. We’re very progressive and excited by what could happen there.”
At a federal level, the UAE has recently announced the General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority, known as the GCGRA, which will regulate and establish “strict guidelines” for the country’s commercial gaming industry. This new GCGRA is chaired by Jim Murren.
Murren is the former chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, a role he held from 2008 to 2020. He was also chairman of the American Gaming Association from 2014 to 2017.
A ‘Gaming Decree’ Is Out There
During September’s 2023 Bank of America Gaming and Lodging Conference, Hornbuckle addressed the formation of the GCGRA, and his own aspirations of a casino industry in Dubai.
“We have told them [Dubai] that we’ll put equity in, or we’ll lease the casino in its totality to give us the casino business,” Hornbuckle said.
“I don’t know that they [Dubai] are going to want to be in the casino business… I think at the end of the day we’ll end up leasing the casino.”
“Reportedly there’s a gaming decree that has been signed, but not released.”
The MGM in Dubai was first announced in 2017. The original scope included two million square feet of built-up space, an MGM Hotel, MGM-branded residences and a Bellagio-branded hotel containing a total of 1,000 rooms and 10 villas. There was also said to be a 500,000-sq-ft theatre, a range of restaurants, museums, a major beach club and adventure zones for both adults and children.
Earlier in the year, property and advisory firm Knight Frank surveyed HNWI prospect buyers about their sentiments and predictions of a UAE casino market. It found that 59% think a casino will open in Abu Dhabi, 58% said Dubai and 48% said the other emirates, which would include Ras Al Khaimah.
45% said they expect a licensed UAE casino to open one to two years from now. The CEO of Wynn Resorts Craig Billings said during a conference call this August that a gaming license at his Marjan resort was imminent.
“So while there may be conversation in other Emirates about legalization or legalization at the federal level, thereby covering all Emirates, I expect that we will have our license for Ras Al Khaimah actually imminently,” BIllings said.
Hornbuckle has already said this year that he expects gaming to be legalized in the UAE.
“As it relates to Dubai, that property continues to evolve,” he said during his Q1 2023 earnings call. “We’re the managers, but 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.”
“We have had people on the ground there basically nonstop since the first of the year, trying to understand the opportunity in Abu Dhabi and then ultimately, if it will open up,” Hornbuckle said. “If they pass on it, [the opportunity] will open up to the other Emirates. Whether the rulers of each Emirate then take it upon themselves to approve it is up to them.”
Looking at another Las Vegas major in the Emirates, Caesars announced a surprising exit from Dubai last month. The operator had the non-gaming Caesars Palace on Bluewaters Island since 2018, and announced its departure from the city just a week after the formation of the GCGRA.
By next month, the Caesars will be rebranded as Banyan Tree Dubai through a new deal with operators Ennismore and developers Dubai Holding.
See Ennismore co-CEO Sharan Pasricha speak on-stage at the Skift Global Forum East in Dubai on December 14.
Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch
Photo credit: A rendering of MGM Resort in Dubai. Being developed by MGM Hospitality and Wasl Asset Management Group near Burj Al Arab Source: MGM Resorts.