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SYRIA: Uncertainty reigns over mysterious Damascus casino

January 11, 2011 |  1:58 pm

A gambling casino opened  Christmas Eve in the Syrian capital without much fanfare. But as patrons have started to pour in, it has begun to stir controversy among pious Syrian Muslims who view gambling as sinful.

Plans to open the Ocean Club casino on the highway next to Damascus International Airport largely fell under the Syrian media's radar. Now members of Syria's parliament are beginning to grumble. They're seeking to have the casino closed and questioning its legal status and whether it has government support.

The Ocean Club was packed to capacity on opening night, reportedly taking in 38 million Syrian pounds, or about $800,000. Despite calls to have it closed down, the casino remained in operation as of Sunday night, with a steady stream of patrons beginning early in the evening.

Gambling and games of chance involving money remain social taboos in Syria, though some illicit venues have operated quietly for years. Lap dancing clubs and night clubs along a highway north of Damascus draw men from the Arabian Peninsula states in the summer, pumping petrodollars into the local economy.

Only non-Syrians, Syrians who live abroad or people who are members of a group called what loosely translated to English is the Association of Tradesmen are believed to be admitted to the casino.

Asking for anonymity, a member of the Syrian parliament told Babylon & Beyond that he thought gambling was good for the economy but was fearful of its growing popularity among Syrians.

"Gambling should not be made accessible to the general public but I think some form of regulation should be introduced," he said. "The country is losing money as people, especially tourists from Iraq, who want to gamble go to Lebanon." 

Rumors about the ownership of the casino continue in Damascus. The lawmaker said he believed the government owns the building, but an employee at the Damascus Airport Hotel, which shares its entrance with the Ocean Club, said the property belongs to the hotel owner and that Khaled Houboubati, who runs the casino, built it himself.

Houboubati's father ran a casino on the site until the late 1960s, when conservatives succeeded in outlawing gambling across Syria. Another source said the government owned 60% of the casino.

Syria is attempting to liberalize its economy with a series of tourism drives. The walls of the Old City of Damascus around Bab Touma recently have gotten a welcome face lift, and in October Syria was listed on Lonely Planet's top 10 places to visit in 2011.

Members of the parliament reportedly have given Houboubati until the end of the month to comply with an official parliamentary query to ascertain whether gambling is taking place at the Ocean Club.

According to the lawmaker interviewed by Babylon & Beyond, the parliament will address the issue Feb. 15.

-- Stephen Starr in Damascus

Photo: An outside view of the Ocean Club casino near Damascus, Syria. Credit:  Los Angeles Times