Syria makes low-key opening of casino

A casino opened without fanfare near the Syrian capital on Christmas Eve, in a bending of the rules in a secular country seeking to lure tourists but where gambling is banned out of respect for Islam.

"The casino was packed, the money flowed," enthused Rami, a 55-year-old businessman more used to the renowned Casino du Liban but curious about the new establishment near Damascus international airport.

He said the casino could poach clients from neighbouring Lebanon, which attracts punters from Syria, Iraq, Jordan and the Arab countries of the oil-rich Gulf.

The casino was inaugurated without much publicity so as not to offend Muslim religious leaders and conservative Syrians mindful of Islam's prohibition of games of chance.

"People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at the Casino du Liban, and they can do the same here," said Rami.

In the first week, most of the clientele were Syrians, with only a few from Lebanon and the Gulf.

Hussam, a client in his fifties, was disappointed. "There are too many people, the gaming room was packed," he said.

Omar, a 45-year-old with a passion for gambling, said he had to enlist the help of a manager at the casino to gain entry with a group of friends.

"The casino was sold out on Saturday night," he said, adding that service "needs to improve" if it wants to compete with the established casinos around the Lebanese capital.

Many Syrians, including well-off businessmen and others with deep pockets, often make the trip to Beirut, which is only a taxi-ride away from Damascus, said Omar.

But for Syrians who prefer to play at home, the new casino offers all the standard fare, including roulette, blackjack, poker and slot machines.

Gambling was banned in Syria in the 1970s, explained analyst Sami Mubayed.

Back in the late 1950s, the clergy tried in vain to ban alcohol and gambling at the resort town of Bloudan, northwest of Damascus, which attracts tourists from the Gulf, Mubayed said.

The opening of the new casino coincides with a period of economic openness in Syria, which has been trying to attract tourists with its wealth of historical sites.

"This will give a boost to tourism," said one of the casino's managers, asking not to be named, adding the project went ahead under a special dispensation as part of economic liberalisation moves in Syria.

But not everyone agrees the casino will bring in more tourists.

"It is not an important economic activity. The facility is not large enough and it cannot compete with the Casino du Liban," said an economic analyst, on condition of anonymity.

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