US Influence Driving Cultural Changes in the Middle East

The tides are turning in the Arabian Peninsula as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) strive to modernise their economies.

They are each working to attract foreign investment to reduce their reliance on oil and position themselves as leading centres for tourism, innovation and business.

Both nations have employed different strategies in their pursuit of modernisation, but a closer look suggests Saudi Arabia may be lagging behind the UAE in several critical areas.

Saudi Arabia’s Cautious Approach & Focus on Gaming

Saudi Arabia’s modernisation efforts are spearheaded by the ambitious Vision 2030 plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but it paints a cautious picture.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) makes significant investments in various sectors, but there are signs that the nation is yet to fully embrace ‘modernity’.

For example, the Saudis have placed a strong emphasis on sports, gaming and eSports, which is allowing them to tap into lucrative markets and potentially become a leader in each sector.

However, this approach does little to address the growing demand for iGaming within the region. Saudi Arabia has a significant population of expatriates, many of whom enjoy playing casino games.

With increased disposable incomes and a growing youth population, the clamour for iGaming is guaranteed to skyrocket in the coming years.

There are already plenty of high-value online casinos in Saudi Arabia. However, while they accept Arab players, they are operated by companies licensed and regulated in other jurisdictions.

The latest development on Saudi Arabia’s first cruise ship further highlights the nation’s reluctance to truly embrace modernisation.

The vessel, which shares the name ‘Aroya’ with the state-owned cruise line, will embark on its maiden voyage in December this year.

However, passengers looking to join this expedition have been met with a laundry list of banned items, including anything that might affect mental health, like alcohol.

Scissors, CDs and ‘magazines that violate public decency’ are also on the no-go list. Casino gaming will also be banned, highlighting that conservatism is still rife in Saudi.

The US is Supporting the UAE’s Progressive Modernisation Strategy

The UAE is renowned for its forward-thinking approach and openness to foreign investment, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

One of the most recent and notable examples of the UAE’s commitment to modernisation is the Wynn Resorts project in Ras Al Khaimah.

Scheduled to open in 2026, the landmark deal aims to establish a $3.9 billion integrated resort in Dubai, emphasising the UAE’s willingness to embrace an unprecedented level of liberalisation.

The resort is the first project of the United States-listed developer in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It is projected to accelerate the UAE’s rise as a major global tourist destination.

The Wynn project reflects the UAE’s plan to ease their regulatory constraints and create a more liberal environment that caters to a growing appetite for luxury tourism and entertainment.

Ras Al Khaimah is one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations in the MENA region, and the Wynn resort is poised to attract high-rollers from across the globe.

The new resort on Al Marjan Island highlights Ras Al Khaimah’s growing global reputation as a leading investment destination for high-quality hospitality projects.

Al Marjan Island is also becoming a world-class resort destination. It boasts a rapidly growing portfolio of luxury five-star hotels and residential developments that offer a wide range of amenities and services.

By extension, the Wynn project also signals the UAE’s intent to compete with established luxury destinations like Las Vegas and Macau, which could bolster Dubai’s reputation as a playground for the wealthy.

This bold approach will diversify the UAE’s economy, create high-value jobs, and attract a skilled international workforce. The Wynn resort is a major indication that the UAE is really letting the brakes off when it comes to modernisation.

Their approach is in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia’s, which seems to have focused its entertainment investments focus to the gaming industry and sports.

Balancing Modernisation & Social Conservatism

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s differing approaches to modernisation indicate that both nations face the challenge of balancing economic progress with social conservatism.

The UAE’s willingness to embrace reforms like the Wynn project highlights their inclination towards a more liberalised economy, which will serve as a new revenue stream.

While it could reduce their dependence on oil in the long run, there are concerns about potential social and cultural clashes within the Emirati society.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia’s approach prioritises maintaining a certain degree of social conservatism. While it may come off as a progressive idea in some key areas, the nation’s reluctance to truly embrace iGaming could hinder their long-term economic goals.

They have shown a willingness to stay in touch with current trends and stay ahead of the curve, but it may not be enough to compete with the UAE’s multifaceted approach.

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