Last roll of dice for only Syrian casino
With roulette wheels, card tables and slot machines, the Ocean Club, near Damascus airport, is the first place to openly offer gambling in Syria since the 1970s, when the last venues were shut down under pressure from religious conservatives.
Similar forces are now, once again, coalescing against the revival of gambling on Syrian soil.
"If it is true that there is a casino and gambling, then we are responsible to struggle against such activity," said Mohammad Habash, a renowned Islamic scholar and member of Syria's national parliament.
He said MPs would table a formal query about the activities of the Ocean Club, which, under Syrian parliamentary rules, must be answered within 30 days. If the government confirmed that gambling was taking place there, Mr Habash said he would ask that the Ocean Club be forcibly closed on the grounds it was operating illegally.
"We have licences for restaurants and nightclubs, but there are no licences for casinos or gambling," he said. "So we consider this to be outside of the law. The government is responsible to stop this kind of activity. We are not going to ask for [the casino's] legal justifications, we are looking to stop and close this kind of activity."
The Ocean Club opened on Christmas Eve, after months of quiet preparation. The owner, Khaled Houboubati, has kept a low profile since. His father, Tawfiq ran three casinos in the 1970s until they were outlawed, including one where the Ocean Club is now located.
Repeated requests for interviews have gone unanswered but a source close to the owner said they had predicted an Islamic backlash and, for that reason, had hoped for a quiet opening.
He also downplayed the club's status as a gambling centre. "It's not a casino, it's a games hall," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's a place where you can bring your family and relax. It's a place for leisure."
Under mainstream interpretations of Islamic law, gambling is not permitted and any money associated with it - even the wages of croupiers or other staff working in a casino - is dirty and should not be touched by Muslims.
Syria has a majority Muslim population as well as other religious and ethnic minority communities, which are proud of their history of largely peaceful coexistence and tolerance. While many in the country's Islamic community are secular in inclination and practice, there is also a hard-line Islamic conservative segment.
That mix has Syrian authorities seeking to mollify Islamic hardliners while constraining radical sentiments and safeguarding the state's secular principles.
Thus, it is no surprise that reactions to the casino have been mixed. With queues out the door and standing room only inside, there appears to have been no shortage of customers, most of them Syrians, willing to lay down their money and try their luck. Before the Ocean Club, the nearest casino was across the border in Lebanon.
The business community and those trying to boost Syria as a venue for tourists - one of the country's major growth industries - have been supportive of the new club, hoping it will help drum up trade and create wealth.
"I'm not particularly in favour of gambling, but I can see the benefits of having it out in the open and being able to tax it," said a Syrian analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity - an indication of how sensitive the subject is here.
The suggestion that shutting the Ocean Club down would drive gamblers underground or harm the Syrian economy, as players took their cash elsewhere, was dismissed by Mr Habash, the Islamist MP.
"It's not an issue about some dollars in exchange for losing your faith, traditions, family and society," he said. "Syria is not a company, looking just to make money. Gambling is a disease and just like drug addiction or adultery we should struggle against it."
Mr Habash insisted a majority of Syrians were opposed to gambling. While that claim is impossible to test, Abu Mohammad, a Damascus resident, probably echoed the sentiments of many Muslins when he said: "My opinion is that we don't need to have this gambling here. It's forbidden by religion and I wouldn't touch any money that had come from gambling."
Updated: January 5, 2011 04:00 AM