One third of online gambling companies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have moved on to eastern Europe or returned to Asia because of pressure from the UAE and Chinese governments, according to a Sharjah-based sociologist.
Wang Yuting, a professor in international studies at the American University of Sharjah, wrote that Dubai has become the “new entrepôt” of China for the Middle East and Africa, and that a mix of online gambling, cryptocurrency and online fraud has taken hold in the emirate.
Citing a Radio Free Asia report from March 2021, Wang said the various operations sourced some 100,000 Chinese nationals on tourist visas from Southeast Asia and China to staff online gambling platforms, according to her May 5 online article for The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
However, “under pressure from Chinese and Emirati authorities and because of the higher operational cost in Dubai, about one third of the offshore gambling companies have either gone to eastern Europe or back to Southeast Asia”.
“Yet, the remaining operators continue to pose a threat to the safety of the Chinese expatriate community at large,” she added.
Wang said Beijing's crackdown on online gaming operations in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian bases generated an “unprecedented influx of transnational online gambling operations” that has “flooded” the UAE market with cash payments for real estate and commodities, triggering price increases for local services and retail.
“Operating with a high level of secrecy and using suspect recruitment methods, these businesses have come under the radar of the Chinese diplomatic missions in the UAE and Emirati authorities.
“The stringent safety measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus have further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis associated with these underground operations.”
In April 2021, ahead of reports that Wynn Resorts was granted permission to open an integrated resort in the emirate Ras Al Khaimah, the government of Dubai denied that it had started issuing gambling operator licences.
But by late June, it had become clear that online operators had secured a substantial foothold in Dubai, with the Chinese consulate-general’s office in Dubai reporting a meeting between Chinese embassy officials in the UAE and Dubai police to crack down on online gambling companies that were “causing various social problems” and “posing a great threat to local public security”.
Some of these operators have registered with Emirati sponsors as e-commerce and software development companies, Wang said.
Wang wrote that the embrace of new technology in the UAE has “blurred the lines between the legitimate and the illicit” as Chinese cryptocurrency entrepreneurs — some likely with overlapping gaming interests — also make Dubai their base.
“The UAE’s policies on cryptocurrencies pose yet another challenge to the Chinese authority that has categorically banned any dealings associated with Bitcoin and the like.
“Dubai and the UAE may be leading the future of a digital economy, but money-laundering allegations and cryptocurrencies could cause disturbances to the existing financial structure,” Wang wrote.
Citing Chinese officials and former staff of Chinese state-owned enterprises, Wang said that the Chinese population of the UAE increased from 2,000 in the early 1990s to 300,000 in 2018, with 90 percent of this number based in Dubai.