First casino to open for 25 years celebrated its first week in business with a New Year’s Eve party.
It is 2am and the money is flowing. The sound of chips landing on the tables chimes with house music filling the room and the roll of the ball along the roulette wheel.
A shout goes out and the young lady’s number has come up. Under a tacky painted replica of the Sistine Chapel, replete with gaudy gold leaf and paisley carpets, the new generation of gamblers are living the high life.
Bow-tied waitresses in miniskirts deliver high-ball rums to men in suits while heavily-painted women sip champagne from their positions on the sidelines.
It isn’t Las Vegas. This is downtown Damascus.
In a move that is certain to divide religious communities, the first casino to open for 25 years celebrated its first week in business with a New Year’s Eve party where entry cost £300 per reveller.
It is the only fully-fledged casino to open in the region, outside Lebanon.
Gambling in Syria is technically illegal. It was banned in the 1970s when the hospitality mogul Tawfiq Houboubati’s three infamous gambling establishments – the Bludan casino, the Airport hotel casino and the Orient club – were closed due to pressure from clerics.
The-then prime minister, Abdul Rahman Khleifawi, allegedly tired of complaints from bankrupted women about their husbands’ addictions, outlawed the practice once and for all.
Now, Houboubati’s son, Khaled – a prominent restaurateur and owner of the al-Wahda football club – has taken the reins from his father, opening the new casino under the innocuous name the Ocean Club at the site of his father’s former establishment at Damascus airport, 15 minutes from the city centre.
Unlike gambling establishments in the past, the new casino offers the full range of games, including blackjack, roulette, slot machines and card tables.
Houboubati has not responded to requests for comment, and has kept a low profile as rumours of the new venue circulate in the city.
But a source close to the family and involved in the opening told the Guardian the casino was operating without an official licence. “It’s been given the quiet go-ahead,” said the source, who did not want to be named.
Security is tight at the new establishment. Photographs are banned and after passing through bag checks and metal detectors, passport details of visitors are carefully recorded.
Despite its location and promotion as a tourist venue, staff, who were given three months’ training as croupiers and cocktail mixers, say so far the majority of clientele have been wealthy Syrians, who have filled the casino from 8am to 8pm for the week it has been open.
Historian and editor-in-chief of Forward magazine in Syria, Dr Sami Moubayed, said that in the past the government preferred to acknowledge a practice that had long been operating “under the table. Historically they preferred this industry to operate under the watchful eye of the government in a way that they can legitimately recoup taxes,” he said.
Gambling establishments , he said, opened and then succumbed to religious or political pressure several times over the last century, but continued to re-emerge. “I’m sure the religious establishment will not like it, but personally I abide by the idea that if the government can collect taxes from gambling then it’s better than sending that money offshore.”
Syria is in the middle of a tourism boom and this year has seen several policy attempts to temper religious extremism in the country.
The government has fiercely promoted its secular values. Last year saw a ban on the niqab being worn in universities and schools, while alcohol sale permits have also flourished.
“Perhaps this falls in line with those policies – but we just don’t know yet,” said Moubayed