x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Opposition builds to newly opened Syrian casino

Economist says casino will not bring in tourists or extra revenue, while politicians say its opening is against Islamic and Syrian law.

DAMASCUS // A leading Syrian economist says that a new casino will not boost tourism and produce sorely needed tax revenue as its owners claim, while efforts to close the controversial gambling hall inched forward this week.

Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank official who heads the independent Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment, said he favoured closing the Ocean Club and saw no "national interest" economic argument to support keeping it open.

Backers of the casino in the business community have argued it will help attract visitors and encourage them to spend money in an official establishment that can be taxed. That argument has cut little ice with Syria's Muslim majority, which insists gambling is prohibited by both Islam and Syrian laws.

"I don't think the casino is important economically," Mr Sukkar said in an interview on Tuesday. "Casinos can generate a lot of money for the government if they are publicly controlled and if the government can tax it, that could bring in money.

"The key question is, can the government actually control it and collect the taxes? I have my doubts. I don't think the government will be able to control the revenues."

Tax evasion is rampant in Syria. There are no hard figures but some economists say the money lost through unpaid taxes each year accounts for a significant part of the annual budget deficit, a figure that exceeded US$5bn (Dh18.4bn) in 2009. The owners of highly profitable businesses account for much of the unpaid taxes.

The Ocean Club quietly opened on Christmas Eve, the first casino to operate in Syria since the 1970s. It has since been doing a roaring trade.

Mr Sukkar, however, said there was no indication that the casino would attract foreign tourists, and that it might even undermine Syria's reputation as a destination for tourists interested in history and culture.

"I don't think people will come to Syria because they want to gamble, that's not the tourism brand we should be promoting. It's not the identity for Syria," he said. "Our key tourism assets are the historical sites, our heritage. If we want to increase business, we need to work hard on improving facilities at tourism sites and selling that brand. "On balance, I'm against the casino, I would like to see it closed at this early stage."

Parliamentary efforts to have the Ocean Club shut are now under way. Last week Mohammad Anas al Shami, an MP from Aleppo, tabled a formal question during a session of the people's assembly, asking the prime minister Naji Otri for details of the casino's licence.

There appears to be a consensus among politicians that no legislation exists to permit gambling in Syria. Under parliamentary rules, the government has 30 days to respond on the matter.

Parliament is now in recess until February 15.

Syrian media reports suggested the parliamentary session was stormy, a claim dismissed by Mohammad Habash, an MP and Islamic scholar who attended the meeting and who is opposed to the casino.

"The procedures have begun," he said. "As an MP, I will wait until parliament reopens and for the government's reaction. If they do not close it voluntarily, we can try to close it."

However, another member of parliament, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that shutting the casino would be difficult, even if gambling were technically illegal.

"It is either licensed or has the power to run without a licence," he said. "But we will do what we can. Even if the casino was the answer to all of Syria's economic needs, I would not accept gambling in this country."

The proprietors of the Ocean Club have not spoken to the media.

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