No, this isn't Saudi Arabia's first casino

Screen grab from a video widely shared on Facebook showing dozens of Saudi men playing cards.
Screen grab from a video widely shared on Facebook showing dozens of Saudi men playing cards.

The photos show hundreds of men wearing traditional Qamis tunics and scarves playing frenzied games of cards in a huge game room. These images have been circulating on social media for the past few days with the description “This is the first casino in Saudi Arabia.” Many people were shocked and scandalised since gambling for money is strictly forbidden in this conservative kingdom. But is there really a casino in Saudi Arabia?

The videos have been circulating on social media since early April, particularly on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The majority of these posts claim that the photos were taken in a casino.

A belote tournament

However, if you use InVid to run a reverse image search, it will lead you to the origin of the videos. They were indeed taken in Saudi Arabia. However, they don’t show a casino but the first official belote tournament organised in the kingdom, which took place in a gymnasium in Riyadh between April 4 and 9.

Belote is a trick-taking card game and it is one of the most popular games in Saudi Arabia. People play it with friends, with their families, in cafés and online. There are also many women who play belote.

Last February, belote was officially recognised by the Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports, giving it the same status as chess, for example.

However, in Saudi Arabia, people play a halal version of the game, meaning no one can play for money or bet on the outcome. Even so, tournament organisers promised a large amount of prize money for the winners.

That’s how first-place winner Badr Abou Hamid ended up walking away with a check for 500,000 rials (around 110,000 euros). The second and third place winners got checks for 250,000 rials (55,000 euros) and 150,000 rials (30,000 euros) respectively.

“No one fronted any money to take part in this competition”

FRANCE 24 contacted Badr Abou Hamid, the winner of the tournament:

I’ve been playing belote since I was 16. I’m now 25. Playing this game requires reflection and strategy, so it is nothing like most gambling games played in casinos.

It is true that there is a check at the end. But that’s the same as any other sport like football, basketball or tennis. When a team wins a tournament, they get both a trophy and money as a prize.

Moreover, it was free to sign up for this tournament. Close to 80,000 people registered online. Then, about 12,000 people were randomly selected to participate. No one fronted any money to take part in this competition.

Adil al-Kalabani, the former imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca, even went to the tournament. In the photos shared on social media, you can see him sitting at a belote table, sometimes chatting with participants.

Opponents of the game roundly criticised al-Kalabani on social media. He responded to these criticisms in a video posted on YouTube.

“Whether we like it or not, belote is a very popular game in Saudi Arabia. I was invited to this competition and I accepted,” he said.

“I told participants to refrain from getting angry or insulting one another. I also explained to them that this game shouldn’t take them away from prayer. If these conditions are respected, there is no wrong in playing belote.”

Saudis first started playing belote in the 1940s. From the very beginning, it has sparked passionate debates between religious leaders and arguments between people who believe the game should be banned outright and those who think it should be legal as long as no one plays for money.

In 1997, Ibn Baz, a Wahhabi religious leader who was then grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa legalising the game. But Saleh Al-Fawzan, another member of the committee of fatwas, has advocated for a ban on the game, which he called “satanic".