Can One Unremarkable Street in Dubai Explain Our Changing World?

Traditional abra ferries shuttle passengers across to Deira, where Rigga Road, and many other roads like it, thrive. March 3, 2010. bennymarty/iStock


When the world’s leaders gathered at the UN in New York recently, it might have seemed like a few city blocks in New York would determine the future of our world. But to understand where our world is going, I would suggest the scenes playing out on a few blocks of a middle-class commercial thoroughfare in Dubai might be more representative.


Rigga Road in the Gulf city of Dubai in the UAE is not the sort of place you will see featured in the glossy brochures of Dubai’s tourism authority or the in-flight magazines of Emirates Airline.

Regular visitors to Dubai may never set foot on the street and, for the four nights I spent there recently, I saw few Western expats and only a smattering of Emiratis. Even Bollywood mega-star and frequent Dubai visitor Shah Rukh Khan may have never visited Rigga Road, though his #BeMyGuest ad promoting Dubai has more than 9m hits.

But if one street could tell a story of the future of our modern world, Rigga Road might be it.


There are no five-star hotels, gleaming skyscrapers, or even tourist-friendly souks selling exotic spices here. It’s not that Dubai. What you will find on Rigga Road instead are a cosmopolitan collection of Asia and Africa’s emerging and aspiring middle classes, enjoying an evening stroll amid Western fast food restaurants, Lebanese and Iraqi kabab joints, a mid-range shopping mall (this is Dubai, of course), some fading three star hotels, and a smattering of hair salons with names like Addis Ladies Salon and Diva.


Dubai is known for many things: Glitzy hotels, the tallest building in the world, a penchant for the over-the-top spectacle, an airline that has stormed onto the scene, and regular celebrity sightings. But the untold story of Dubai is the story of the Asian middle classes – from the Philippines to India, Pakistan to China – that have flocked to the city to work, live, visit, consume, and connect.


Asian middle classes will, in many ways, drive our collective future, because they have become such a potent engine of demand for our global economy. The scholar Homi Kharas at the Brookings Institution estimates that middle class consumption between now and the year 2030 could grow by $29trn. The overwhelming majority of that growth – $28trn – will come from Asia. As such, Asian middle class spending has become a global matter, one that will affect economies from Dallas to Dubai.


With 3.2bn people in the global middle class today, Kharas points out that by the year 2020, we may have a majority middle class world – for the first time in history.  What’s more, the overwhelming majority of new entrants to the global middle class – 88% – will hail from Asia over the next decade and half.


Today, more than 85% of the world lives outside of northern America and Europe. The so-called “West” is not only a demographic minority today but will continue to be one deep into the 21st century. According to the UN, by the year 2050, Africa will add another 1.3bn people to the world, and Asia will add another 700m.


As the middle class falters in many Western countries, it is growing across the “85 world” and cities like Dubai – geographically well-situated as a four hour flight to one-third of the world and an eight hour flight to two-thirds of the world – have become air and trade and tourism hubs of a rising and aspiring middle class.


Of course, Dubai is only a “listening post” of the new Asian middle class. The numbers are far too large, and Dubai too small, to be anything more than that. Still, there are few places in the world where you can watch such a diverse slice of the Asian and African middle class as Rigga Road in Dubai.


Here, a tattooed Filipino skateboarder whizzes by the Burger King, there an Egyptian family lines up for fresh fruit juice at Juice World, two Pakistani men in shalwar and khamees sit on a bench eating McDonald’s ice cream sundaes, and a group of Indian men speaking Malayalam (the language of Kerala state in southern India), check out the latest mobile phones.


Walk into Bollywood Gifts, a discount mini hyper-market flowing with goods from dishwashing liquids to face creams, teddy bears to packaged pens, and your head may go dizzy with all of the stuff on display. Here you’ll find the familiar brands of globalisation: Colgate toothpaste, Nutella chocolate spread, Kit Kat bars, and hip-hop music blaring overhead. But you’ll also find brands you may have never heard of with names like Gatsby (hair wax), Cool Cat (notebooks), and Macho (men’s underwear, of course), accompanied by Iranian pop music in a different corner.


Bollywood Gifts is also an appropriate symbol because Dubai has long been the undeclared Hong Kong of South Asia. Dubai International Airport is now the gateway to the world for Pakistani and Indian travellers, and along with Abu Dhabi International Airport, the most important international air hub for these South Asian giants. Dubai-based Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad have become akin to national airlines of India.


The real Bollywood also regularly hosts launches, openings, and events in Dubai, and Shah Rukh Khan has become a brand ambassador of sorts. He’s apparently back in Dubai to film the second round of his #BeMyGuest Dubai ads. He ought to visit Rigga Road this time.


A version of this article first appeared in The Hill on September 26, 2017.