The legal mastermind of Macau’s modern-day gambling industry has excoriated the Macau government for “an inconceivable level of incompetence” for holding a casino concession tender during multiple crises.
Jorge Oliveira, lead architect for Macau’s liberalised casino industry from 2001 and a veteran commissioner for legal affairs with the former Macau Gaming Commission, publicly attacked Macau’s leaders with a bluntness that is now extremely rare in the city.
Oliveira said in a Macau News Agency opinion piece on Monday (November 7) that the government made a “serious mistake” in proceeding with a concession tender amid severe ongoing damage from the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is not too late for the Macau government to recognise the serious mistake it has embarked upon and to backtrack,” he said, noting that Macau’s amended gaming law had allowed for the extension of current concessions to 2026.
The government has extended the expiry of existing concessions by six months to the end of 2022, but Oliveira said this is not enough to stave off mounting risk to the industry.
Macau’s “public interest must prevail over the face-saving of a government that showed such an inconceivable level of incompetence” in disregarding these risks, he said.
Oliveira identified not only China’s stubborn and strict zero-COVID policy and associated restrictions on visitation to Macau, but also “grave uncertainty” for the all-but-collapsed VIP segment after years of pressure from Beijing and regulatory crackdowns, as well as “uncertainty on the financial capacity” of “seriously indebted” casino operators.
“The Macau government is expected to act in a responsible manner,” he wrote.
“The fact that only one outside operator — Genting — came to the tender of the largest casino gaming centre in the world speaks volumes.
“The leverage of the Macau government to press the tenderers to make better offers is clearly diminished, thus harming [the] public interest.”
Media reports and VIXIO GamblingCompliance sources indicate that the Macau government is attempting to extract expensive commitments to non-gaming investment in negotiations with new concession applicants.
But Oliveira wrote it is not clear if even existing operators are able to support loss-making employment levels amid greatly reduced business, nor honour “the commitments towards many service providers” in the city.
“Reports of Macau operators running low on cash and likely serious difficulties in terms of cash flow in the second quarter of 2023 are to be taken seriously,” he wrote.
“Given the financial situation of casino gaming operators, can anyone with common sense expect that they will adhere to significant commitments in the short-term involving additional risky financial exposure?”
Macau has also been as aggressive with border closures and mass testing as the Chinese government, although its handling of individual cases of infection has not been marred by the kind of hard line on locked-down populations in the mainland.
Nonetheless, Oliveira said “overwhelming dependence” on mainland China means that Macau’s present and future “leeway as regards the zero-COVID policy is null”.
“The occurrence of a COVID outbreak in Macau, no matter how small, has led and may lead again to a closure of the borders,” he said.
Criticism of the Macau and Beijing governments within Macau has dulled dramatically over the last five years or so as a narrative of national security vigilance strengthened and as expectations of publicly expressed fealty of casino operators to the government took hold.
Oliveira is currently a partner and CEO of the Portugal and Macau-based JCO Consultancy and most recently a Portuguese vice minister for internationalisation affairs.