People in Syria can now roll the dice at the country's only
casino, which recently opened its doors in a gamble of its own -
to test the limits in this largely conservative society.
Casino Damascus, which opened around 30 km outside the capital,
near Damascus airport, is seen as a step in Syria's cautious plan
to transform itself into a more open-market economy.
There has not been a casino in Syria since the 1963 coup, when the
Baath party took power. The party, with its strong socialist
roots, opposed gambling and what it saw as the influence of
"I've always wanted a casino to open in Syria, so I was very glad
when I came here," said Samer al-Ali shortly after he entered the
casino with his friends.
While the move to open a casino once again suggests Syria is
slowly softening its domestic policies, the place lacks the flashy
signs and lights associated with many casinos elsewhere in the
world. In fact, there are no signs outside this casino, which is
run by a number of unnamed influential local businessmen.
Its low-key exterior and desolate location are a sop to ensure
that the place does not offend Syria's Muslims, as Islam prohibits
Al-Ali agrees that the idea of a casino might be bizarre to his
society. "But the place is far from resident areas or a house of
worship," argues al-Ali, a well-off businessman, who plans to
spend most of his spare time there.
"Globalisation opened up all options for life. Each person has the
right to live as he wishes, as long as there is no harm done to
anyone. Life is not owned by those who live by religious slogans,"
A quiet opening ceremony for Syria's only casino was held on
Christmas Eve "to avoid hurting the feelings of those who do not
encourage such economic activities," sources at the casino told
That said, there are a number of Arab countries that issues
permits for casinos, especially in five-star hotels to attract
Casino Damascus is adjacent to a small hotel used mainly by
travellers who have to spend long hours in between connecting
Al-Ali likes the place and thinks it makes people feel comfortable
but he says that the staff lack experience in dealing with
customers. He was also surprised when they asked for a copy of his
passport at the door.
One other thing al-Ali complains about is that he has to pay for
alcoholic drinks, which are free in Lebanon's famous Casino du
"Most of those who have been coming here since the casino opened
want to discover the place, but if management want to attract
regular customers, they need to improve the services," he adds.
Although the owners are eyeing the coming few months as a trial
period to see how successful the venture is, the place is open and
ready for those who wish to gamble. Inside are blackjack,
roulette, baccarat and poker tables, as well as slot machines.
The casino is aiming to attract high-flying customers from
neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Iraq, who are known to
spend thousands of dollars at Casino du Liban, sources added.
Casino Damascus is not as big as Casino du Liban, which was
inaugurated in December 1959 and enjoys a monopoly on all gambling
activities in the country. Though it was closed during the war in
Lebanon, the Beirut casino was re-opened in 1996 after a $50
million reconstruction and refurbishment programme.
Nour, a young waitress at the casino, feels the only thing missing
from the casino is a doctor's office. "Sometimes a huge loss is
shocking for customers, we need to take precautions."