While politicians spar over who should have jurisdiction over online gambling, illegal gambling operations remain rampant across the country and the state is believed to be losing millions of dollars as a direct result.
A draft decree has been on lawmakers’ shelves since 2012 that would give the Lebanese government control over online gambling, but it has not been considered due to a lack of political will and bickering among politicians.
“We amended a draft in 2012 to include all gaming outside Casino du Liban, including the bingo centers ... under the jurisdiction of the Finance Ministry,” an official from the Finance Ministry told The Daily Star. “It hasn’t been approved or discussed by anyone since then because of the political nonsense you know about.”
The source estimated “millions of dollars” in gambling revenue are not reaching the state treasury because of a lack of political will to pass the needed laws. Due to this inaction, online gambling is still illegal in Lebanon; although it’s likely thousands of Lebanese do it.
H.S., a 31-year-old Lebanese citizen, places bets using bet365.com, a British business that describes itself as “one of the world’s leading online gambling companies.”
He has a foreign bank account into which he deposits money using a credit card issued by a Lebanese bank. However, he can’t bring his gambling winnings into the country.
Previously, his local bank contacted him when he tried to transfer the money from his foreign bank to his domestic account.
“They told me since it was a small amount, they would let it go through, but for next time it wouldn’t because the source of my money was from an ‘illegal website,’” H.S. said.
Another citizen who wished to remain anonymous admitted online gambling was illegal but there were many ways to “cash out” into local banks, depending on the bank and which online credit card is issued.
“BLOM has an internet [credit] card that can be used and cashed out on bet365, but Bank Audi and Byblos Bank don’t allow you to transfer money into or out of this site,” he said. He added that Bank Audi has a card that can be used to gamble online on sites such as PokerStars, an online poker card room. Bet365 was unavailable for comment.
For those looking to cash out more easily, a lower-tech solution is available – the bookie.
Currently a Lebanese-American man, J.R., is in control of the market. He is flanked by two assistants, Riad and Avo, a Syrian national and a Syrian national of Armenian descent, respectively. The three men who currently control the gambling market now have agents across the country from Tripoli to Beirut.
Noticing Lebanon’s lack of government regulations, a group of Russian nationals attempted to enter the illegal gambling market earlier this decade. The Russian tourists were introduced to a Lebanese man who began to take bets from locals on their behalf.
“The Lebanese man would take bets worth up $50,000, and the Russians would give him a cut for being the middleman,” a source told The Daily Star. But shortly after, J.R. learned of the Lebanese man working on behalf of the foreigners and grew frustrated. He contacted the Lebanese man and voiced his disapproval. “The Lebanese man paid the Russians what they were owed, and this ring [has] vanished since then.
“This is when we knew J.R. was the real godfather of online gambling in Lebanon,” the source said. Gamblers who communicate with J.R. say, though he works illegally, he has “a reputation that is super-wow.”
People have won up to $200,000 on bets placed through him and he “pays you every penny that is owed.”
That’s the major risk with offline betting – in Lebanon, bookies or gaming centers that do not pay out gamblers’ winning shares cannot be subject to legal action.
A source from Casino du Liban said all betting, including sports gambling, should be under the jurisdiction of the casino.
“There are around 1,000 video poker and gambling centers in the country [that] have been given permits from the Interior Ministry and [local governors],” but these are currently not under the casino’s jurisdiction and are therefore unregulated, the source said.
The casino has been in a fight with the state over closing down these centers, and the source said the two sides agreed in 2008 to shut down any gambling center other than the casino. “We paid LL83 billion [$55 million] in back pay to the state at the time the deal was struck.” The reason is more than financial, the source said. “We have awareness campaigns and encourage it as gaming, not gambling,” the source claimed, contrasting the casino’s practices with those of the unregulated gambling centers.
Giving another reason the illegal centers should be closed, the casino source said: “If a foreigner walks into an illegal betting center, they don’t know [it’s illegal] and they could be robbed of their money.”
By Joseph Haboush
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