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Macau aims to diversify its gambling-addicted economy, a course Beijing urges at every opportunity, as the city’s gaming revenue climbs beyond $2 billion a month. Last week, Macau rejected Sands China’s bid for Lots 7 and 8 to build a new casino resort in the Cotai entertainment district. But Macau’s decision may have no connection to economic diversification.
A subsidiary of US-based Las Vegas Sands, Sands China has spearheaded efforts to create an Asian version of the Las Vegas Strip in Cotai, a landfill connecting Macau’s outer islands of Coloane and Taipa. Following its $12 billion master plan, Sands China has already opened the Venetian Macao, and the Four Seasons/Plaza complexes, and has another 6,400 room casino resort under construction. Sands China says it invested more than $160 million in Lots 7 and 8 based on an informal grant from the Macau government several years ago.
In tiny Macau, land is the most valuable commodity, and the government controls it. Formal approval for land concessions in Macau routinely comes long after the designated developer begins work. Sands China has every right to feel that it got a raw deal. It has appealed the decision to Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on. The company could also take its case to court. But in Macau, where matters are habitually decided behind closed doors and without public explanations – news about Lots 7 and 8 came from Sands China, not the government – it’s tough to beat the house.
Losing Lots 7 and 8 hurts Sands China but, as I wrote in Asia Times, the meaning for Macau is far less clear. Denying the application seems to be a move to limit future gaming, but it’s likely that the land will be granted to one of Sands China’s rivals to build its own casino resort.
Macau’s government may have a grudge against Sand China, even though it’s the casino developer that provides the most diverse non-gaming amenities at its resorts, including shopping malls, a 15,000 seat arena, a Cirque du Soleil production, and a 1,000,000 square foot convention center, all money losers to date. Macau added insult to injury by staging an unprecedented vice raid Friday at the Venetian Macao during a visit by Las Vegas Sands chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly has a rocky relationship with government leaders.
Or Macau could be signaling it will limit growth for outsiders, defined as anyone not named Ho – as in local gambling godfather Stanley Ho. Ho and his children have stakes in three of Macau’s six casino licenses.
The saga of Lots 7 and 8 unmistakably illustrates that Macau’s unelected, unaccountable government can and will act arbitrarily. Smart investors will understand that hard reality trumps Macau’s glittering casino revenue numbers.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.