The United Arab Emirates is best known for its sand dunes, oil reserves, and strict religious laws, but behind the popular image is a regional hub for finance and innovation.

Dubai's Photo

The second biggest economy in the Middle East is weaning itself off oil and diversifying to embrace the 21st century. New technologies are key to the Emirati vision of the future; the country has created a Ministry for Artificial Intelligence to find ways to implement AI in areas such as the economy, education, infrastructure, and more, and the futuristic cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are also drawing major cryptocurrency exchanges like Binance.

And few things go together as well as innovation and iGaming.

 The UAE has a near total ban on gambling, owing to its tradition of Islamic law. But that doesn’t mean the industry’s potential goes unrecognized. In fact, the Emiratis are keeping an open mind about the role both online and land based gaming could play in the country’s economy.

Conferences and expositions draw together not just platform operators and game developers, but boundary pushing companies from all corners of the tech sector. Perhaps the best known iGaming conference and one of the biggest is SiGMA, which has launched regional events around the world. SiGMA Asia has found its home in Dubai, with the next iteration of the event coming in March 2023, drawing representatives from all over the iGaming sphere.

The tourism sector is one of the biggest contributors to the economy, after petroleum products. Like many other nations, the UAE has recognized the magnetic power gambling has. Wynn Resorts is planning to build a massive, multibillion dollar integrated casino resort on the man made island of Al Marjan in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.

Prohibition rarely does much to quell demand, and while it doesn’t take much to put a ban in place, enforcing it is a different story. Horse and camel racing have a time honored place in Emirati culture, and while you won’t find official bookmakers at the Jebel Ali Racecourse or the Dubai Racing Club, you can look for locals offering odds on the sly.

And the lack of local options, as usual, simply means players will direct their attention to international ones. There is a long list of offshore sites that accept players from the UAE. While gambling is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to AED 20,000 ($5,445), that doesn’t stop Emiratis from visiting offshore platforms. With a very high GDP per capita, Emiratis have more than enough money to spend on entertainment, and with VPNs, e-wallets, and cryptocurrencies, there’s little to stop them from playing at an online casino of their choice.

Of course, localization is always necessary. Casinos that accept Emirati players usually offer their services in Arabic and support transactions in all regional currencies, such as the UAE’s dirham and neighboring Saudi Arabia’s riyal; e-wallets like Neteller and Skrill are commonly supported.

When it comes to player tastes, Emirati players are little different from the rest of the world. Sports betting is highly popular, especially football (European leagues in particular) and horse and camel racing. Casino gaming is also widespread. Platforms that target the region usually offer a wide mix of casino table games and slots from leading game developers. Live dealer games are also highly popular. It’s also common to offer generous welcome packages and many tiered loyalty programs.

If there is a tilt towards liberalization in the future, you can assume the sector will be strictly controlled; unfortunately, while the digital economy makes commerce faster and easier, it also creates opportunities for money laundering and other illicit activities. Under pressure from Emirati authorities, many gambling companies previously based in the country and targeting audiences in other regions have relocated to Eastern Europe or Asia, due to concerns about financial security.

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