With new casino, Syria bets on openness to world

The glittering casino showcases Syria's gradual shedding of its socialist past in favor of the free market.

Syria shoppin mall 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)
Syria shoppin mall 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)
DAMASCUS, Syria — The young roulette dealer, dressed in electric green, gives the wheel a spin as a crowd of men clutch their whiskey glasses, hoping to strike it rich.
Thus begins a night of gambling, drinking and mingling at the newly opened Casino Damascus — the first to open in Syria in nearly four decades.
The glittering casino showcases Syria's gradual shedding of its socialist past in favor of the free market. At a time when economic discontent is shaking Tunisia and Egypt, President Bashar Assad is gambling that gradual change can insulate his country from such tumult.
But for this country's secular regime, Casino Damascus may be too much for devout Muslims to swallow.
"Gambling is a grave sin," said Mohammed Habash, member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Center, who puts it on a par with drug abuse. "We must use all legal means to prevent gambling from entering our lives."
The casino is hardly as glamorous as those in neighboring Lebanon or Turkey, but officials hope it will help shed Syria's image as a rigid, closed country and attract tourists from oil-rich Arab countries.
"Syria has opened up, and this is one of the signs," said Jihad Yazigi, editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, a Paris-based online weekly founded the year after Assad succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, as president.
"It's a good economic move, but a bad one for society," said Marwan, a 70-year-old Syrian. "I see a lot of young people getting into trouble. This is not a good hobby," he said.
Still, it didn't stop this twice-weekly customer from taking his seat at the blackjack table, although he and other gamblers declined to be fully identified, reflecting the stigma that still surrounds gambling in Syria.
That stigma apparently explains why the casino is near the airport, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from downtown, and was inaugurated without fanfare on Christmas Eve.
There are no signs advertising its existence, and it is one of the few public places that does not feature a portrait of Assad — a sign the president does not want to be associated with it publicly, even though the casino could not exist without his approval.
The owner is Syrian businessman Khaled Hboubati, whose father owned a casino in the same place before it was closed down in the mid-1970s during Hafez Assad's three decades of iron-fisted rule.
His son, a British-trained eye doctor, has moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions. He has let in foreign banks, thrown the doors open to imports, authorized private universities and empowered the private sector.
"It shows a desire on the part of the Syrian government to portray a more liberal Syria in terms of societal behaviors," said editor Yazigi.
Today's Syria is buzzing with young people enjoying the country's many sidewalk cafes, pubs and nightclubs. Glossy shopping malls vie with the famous bazaar, and dozens of historic houses have been converted into boutique hotels and fine restaurants.
The Damascus Opera House, inaugurated by Assad and his wife, Asma, in 2004, features international orchestras, plays and exhibitions.