Shifting wealth of nations – what is overlooked

Middle class spending is crucial for economic growth. So now, with Western middle classes in debt and distress, many economists look to the new emerging-market middle class as the foundation for a new era of global  prosperity. However, companies need new approaches to penetrate the developing world’s increasingly prosperous consumer markets.

saudi arabia, business development
Saudi Arabia has more money than any other country in the world. And they literally shop until they drop

The last couple of years 70 million people in developing countries joined the middle class, with incomes between $6,000 and$30,000. It is estimated that within 20 years they will surpass their Western pears when it comes to global spending power. The focus is mainly on Asia and it is estimated that in about a decade they will pick up the slack left by overspent America. Emergency market spending is in fact already bolstering the balance sheets of many Western firms.

World focusing on China and India

Needless to say the world is focusing on China and India due to its huge populations as well as rapidly rising economies and middle classes. Correct if you look at the amount of people. But by looking at the issue that way we overlook a very potent and prosperous group of people. Saudi Arabia’s retail sector is booming as more international brands look to move into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has already overtaken better known retail destinations like Hong Kong, Russia and Japan when it comes to attracting brands. Only London and Dubai are attracting more retailers and shoppers.

Don’t forget Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states

When it comes to per capita spending I’m certain that the middle classes in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries not only earn more but also spend far more than their Asian counterparts. It’s not for nothing many middle class Indians chose to work in the Gulf, despite the fact that they are paid less than the locals. Salaries are higher and you pay no income tax in the Gulf.

Shopping for entertainment

Shopping is a top leisure activity and when the weekend starts the malls are filled with people who literally shop until they drop. A woman who works in a Chanel shop in the area told me an average customer spends an absolute fortune every time they come to the shop. And the same goes for more expensive items like cars, jewellery and electronics. Considering the importance the Chinese put on saving money, I would be very surprised if middle class people in China, with the exception of some mega rich, spend that much.

Emerging middle classes have different tastes

Emerging-market leaders know that the Western system created the worldwide boom of the last quarter century that ended when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Now the boom has moved to emerging markets, and their leaders will increasingly choose to alter Western models to suit their countries. Consequently the fact that all eyes are on Asia and the Gulf is forgotten could turn out to be a fatal mistake. The new emerging middle classes are supporters of globalization but highly nationalistic. And there is a vast difference between nationalism in China and, say, Kuwait.

Kingdom to invest $100b in transport and logistics
And not only is KSA and the Gulf a key market for consumer brands. All other products and services will find that what they have to offer is in high demand. Saudi Arabia is, for instance, targeting $100 billion of investment in ports, airports, railroads, roads and logistics centre projects over the next decade in a push to make the kingdom one of the world’s leading transport and logistics hubs by 2020.

Back to emerging middle classes in general, we can conclude that the Chinese bought more cars than Americans the last couple of years, and that India has as many Internet users as the U.S. Also it is estimated that by 2030, more than nine out of every 10 mobile phones will be owned by people in the developing world. Coca-Cola actually forecasts a doubling of worldwide revenues to $200 billion over the next decade, thanks to another 1 billion people expected to join the middle class by 2020. So Western companies who haven’t yet focused on developing countries’ middle classes should jump on the band waggon swiftly and not overlook the Gulf.

(photo: flickr – Lars Plougmann)

71 thoughts on “Shifting wealth of nations – what is overlooked

    1. Yes Jeannette, the middle classes are declining not only in the US but Europe as well. In the devloping countries they are however increasing and so is their spending power.

  1. What you say makes a lot of sense with regard to targeting the middle class in Saudi Arabia and in the gulf states as well as middle class everywhere, although the middle class here is sorely shrinking. I was surprised about the forecast that the Chinese will be buying more cars since they have a terrible air pollution problem, although this may not be true of the entire nation.

    1. Yes, it makes sense, doesn't it, Michele. The Chinese middle class has much higher spending power than the middle classes in the West so they can afford to buy more cars than we do. They don't care about air pollution but see it as as a consequence of their big leap forward.

  2. You make some valid points here. Markets are global now. Companies need to change their perspectives to address those markets. It’s interesting how shopping is viewed as entertainment by some, and saving that same money is more important to others. This just proves the point that you need to know your market and its culture.

  3. South Africa holds elections in a week and the focus on the middle class is quite strong as it is also a growth sector for the country. it is an area that show whether a country is moving forward in terms of value creation and benefit of its citizens. I was talking to a friend who works in Saudi Arabia over the weekend and he echoes your sentiments that it is a big spender market with a lot of investment flowing into the economy, although under strict control in terms of foreign vs local ownership of the businesses in-country.

    1. Worked with Mbeki and others already more than ten years ago to get more investment to Southern Africa to capitalize on the growing middle class. Pity it's still difficult to attract foreign money to your part of the world. If you know top people in Saudi Arabia that's probably the best place in the world to start exporting to at the moment. However, without top connections there you will fail.

  4. I’ve never really thought about Saudi in the context of an emerging economy. It has always seemed like a wealthy state, so when the discussion turns to the new playing field, it doesn’t come to mind. Having said that, I can see how the previous lack of economic diversification might lead people to make the wrong assumptions. It should be interesting to see how the taste there will influence product design, manufacturing and even promotional approaches here and in Europe.

    1. Saudi Arabia has been wealthy for a long time. Most exporters concentrate on China and India and ignore the fact that Saudi and the Gulf states have much higher per capita incomes. When it comes to their taste, like with all developing countries, they like flashy things and designer brands.

  5. It was really and informative post and many people around the globe always come across China , India , Gulf and know what is going on and how and where the wealth is shifting. West have to visualize it’s potential costumers.
    Saudi Arabia have huge amount of wealth due to its oil , gas and there is a lot of gold as well.
    You have talked about the shopping in Saudi Arabia , as you have visited Saudi Arabia you know how people shop here. It is there fav. hobby.
    Many people from India and many other countries prefer to work here as of tax free salary ,their pay is less than locals but still if you convert in their currency it is much more than what they get in their countries.

    1. Glad you agree, Andleeb. Just wish to clarify that I have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. The spending power in KSA lies with Saudis and Western expats. The latter earn ass much as Saudis.

  6. It occurs to me that if the leadership of the USA companies would direct their attention to countries that DO have people spending money, that the USA unemployed workforce would very likely begin to grow again. While the middle class shrinks in the USA, if the private sector leaders might have a broader view, as you talk about here, then we could possibly grow it again. Great post Catarina.
    My recent post Google Penalty: No get out of Jail Free card – Part 2

  7. Hi Catarina,
    This is a most informative and interesting article. I graphically visualize the shifting wealth of nations as a fluid flow of commerce. One thing for sure, affluence is a form of influence, and KSA has this in abundance. As of late, their oil is still around $104 per barrel.

    Have a great week!
    My recent post Near Death Experience: You Might Be Having One Right Now

  8. Extremely interesting post and I also read an article last week addressing the same topic, though largely as it pertained to the US and it's declining middle class juxtaposed to rising middle classes in China. Interesting from a political point of view as well as how and in what way it will affect consumer products.
    My recent post Where’s The Justice… Virtual Honesty

    1. Thank you, Jacqueline. The declining middle classes not only in the US but Europe has meant that middle class spending power has moved to the developing world. And unless the West start empowering their middle classes again that trend will continue.

  9. I can agree with so many of the comments above! THanks for sharing this post Catarina. I always enjoy reading up on the direction of where markets are heading in terms of middle class spending. Great and informative as always.

  10. The interesting thing to watch for me will be how the new middle class views spending versus saving and just where that spending is placed. It's bound to be very different. The view on nationalist attitudes is bound to have an affect. What that may mean, as you pointed out, will depend on the region or nation where the new middle class is developing. Time will only tell how that all shakes out. 🙂
    My recent post MacRostie Chardonnay 2011: Wine

    1. That's an interesting aspect of it, Susan. In the West the middle classes are saving at the moment due to the severe economic downturn. That's not the case in prosperous countries. To export to those markets is hence a good idea.

  11. What an interesting article! I love the image of gold, gold and more gold with the caption of shopping until they drop. It certainly is a good idea to offer our products where people have a lot of money and enjoy spending it.

  12. This was a great article Catarina. I follow politics to an extent, mostly what's happening in Canada, but other countries to some extent. Up to now I have believed that China was the next world economic power, its interesting to consider Saudi Arabia as such, yet that shouldn't be a surprise.
    Anyway, thanks for giving us another perspective.

  13. Since I first began travelling the world and now, the biggest single change has been the emerging middle class in developing nations. It has been an astounding shift. Within their own country but also in the fact that many can now travel abroad leading, hopefully, to a more level playing field in all aspects of life.

    This is leading to many of the upheavals in many of these countries as they digest and process current governments and their agendas.

  14. There’s no doubt that wealth is shifting and that middle classes are emerging where previously they did not exist and growing where previously they were not an important factor. This will manifest itself differently in areas that do not manufacture much, than in areas where manufacturing is central to the economy and focus must be shifted to domestic markets as the west becomes less able to sustain purchases. In both cases there are major opportunities for western brands that have an upscale cachet or that have been advertised in a manner that promotes an aspirational lifestyle to those in emerging markets.

  15. The rise or fall of the middle class is a leading indicator of a nations economic well-being.

    China: Rising middle class, rising economy.
    India: Rising middle class, rising economy.
    USSR: No middle class, no more USSR.
    US: Declining middle class, follow the path of the trajectory.

    Now, what comes next?

    Not so much what to sell to the emerging markets; the emerging markets will determine that, but rather where to make it?

    In the service industry, the rising middle class will no doubt exploit cheap labour–whether from home or immigrants seeking a better life than the harsh ones they flee.

    With goods (products), the question is slightly different, but analogous to the enterprise of a woman who opened up a stationary business.

    With the state mandate to allocate 15% of its budget to doing business with businesses owned by women and minorities, she set up the following system.

    She acquired stationery catalogues from stationery companies, put her label on the front and sent the catalogues to the purchasing departments of government agencies.

    Purchasing departments sent orders to her via fax. She sent orders to the suppliers with instructions to ship to the buyers–purchasing departments. The company invoiced her. She invoiced the purchasing departments. She kept the difference as a profit.

    Emerging markets?

    Companies sell to the emerging middle class.
    They manufacture goods in other emerging nations.
    Ship the goods from distressed nations to the rising middle class buyers in emerging markets.
    Pocket the difference as profits.

    Sadly, I lack initiative.

    As Gertrude Stein once said, "I always wanted to be rich. I just never wanted to do what I had to do to become rich."


    My recent post India: The FaceBook Evolution

      1. Catarina,

        Over the past 50 years in pursuit of my "social" studies, I've found that people who are very well off describe themselves as middle class, women who are very attractive are unaware that their "looks" pave the way. Or, as a newscaster once said, "Good people don't know how bad people are."

        Indeed, Ms. Stein was quite well off.

        The conundrum for the emerging markets is glossed over. As the middle class emerges, what happens?

        1. people go from eating rice to eating corn.
        2. from eating corn to eating chickens.
        3. from eating chickens to eating chickens with rice and corn-on-the-cob. (With butter.)

        Aside from the weight gain, and the expenditure, the resources–once sufficient, barely, for the others, are eaten up (literally) by the emerging middle class.

        After they have emerged, the middle class begins competing for resources with the upper middle class. This drives up both demand, and price. To keep costs down, the unemerged are pressed into labour at menial wages. (You wrote about the population shift to cities!)

        Here in America, Mexicans arrive as guest workers to pick apples earning for a day's work what they earned in Mexico for a week's work. We however, have the space and the agricultural resources that are unavailable in emerging nations.

        "There are no unintended consequences, only unwanted consequences." The quotations of Slim Fairview.


        My recent post Merkel and Charybdis

  16. I have traveled to over 20 countries on business. You are correct about targeting countries and regions and not just looking at the same places as everyone else. First mover advantage is important.


  17. Very insightful article Catarina. It’s interesting to read about the growing middle class elsewhere while here in the United States, we continue to see the middle class shrinking. Where we no longer manufacture very many consumable products, it seems daunting to see how we can jump on the band wagon. It will definitely be a challenge for our country to find new products and services to meet the growing demands of new consumers in both the Gulf and Asia.

  18. Catarina,
    Interesting prediction within global uncertainty. I appreciated Manuel's comment by Brazilian political scientist Amaury de Souza "We still don't know how sustainable the rise of the new middle classes will be." And to the extent that the new middle class is precarious, its ability to effect political change will be, too. Indeed, some development economists argue that the poor will be a greater force for social change. There is no middle-class parallel to the broad push for land reform among rural leaders in China. They are the agitators, unwedded to the status quo. The developing world's new consumers may have unleashed tremendous new energy at the checkout counter. But their ability to become a force for better government, greater freedoms, less corruption, and more economic liberty is much less certain.

    My intuitive view is that like a few years ago the Internet was hardly recognized as a valued platform in economic global development so to will the poor become an increasing pro~advocate for balancing consumeristic growth in GNP for sustainability. It's interesting China bought more cars than USA and it's also insane to tear up bike paths to build highways. And it will be very interesting politically to see the outcome in China between rural leaders and central governments over built commercial real estate. Sustainability is the name of the new game. Do you assess "growth without restraint" as sustainable? If everyone in the world today were to consume as Americans (their weight in resources per day) we will need four more planets the size of earth.

    How does that viewpoint converge in your current thinking and position? In the end does agrarian justice trump agrarian law based in power? And this new emerging middle class may become a learning 3rd rail political block party that turns on Coca Cola as pro~consumers designing healthier wiser choices in the future in solidarity caring for global values of sustainability.

    Thanks once again for stimulating critical thinking. Appreciate as always your insights.

    makes me wonder if the overspending of this new middle class around the world can sustain the pressure of supporting the economies of the world..

  19. Very good article, Catarina. I've heard about the power of economics shifting from the West to the East. But, to your point, not enough leaders and companies in the world fully appreciate the emerging opportunities in the GCC. I think local populations throughout the GCC are young and growing, and they represent a phenomenal need for all kinds of consumer products and services. Despite the push for alternative energy, oil and gas remain 'king' and the broader Gulf region is its 'kingdom.' Qatar and Saudi Arabia are strong, and will continue to invest in their development. Finally, a friend mentioned that many things in the region, economically, also have to pass through Abu Dhabi. The Gulf is where the action is!

  20. Wow, to learn shopping is considered entertainment for the middle class of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries is fascinating. I would love to see some ecommerce data on this demographic. Anyone have some interesting stats to share?

    1. You should see the amount of cars heading for malls when the weekend starts. Doubt there are any exact stats for it, but maybe someone has the figures? If so please post them. Anyway, it's not for nothing that only Dubai and London attract more retailers than Saudi Arabia.

  21. Fascinating article. I had no idea that things were shifting in this direction. I wonder how this will affect companies in the upcoming years and what effect it will have on us. How will the upper-middle class Americans be affected by this shift? Interesting!

    1. Thank you Laura. More and more companies in the developed world will be keen on penetrating the new markets. And the shift from the West to the emerging markets will intensify. Needless to say that will have an affect on not only Americans but Europeans as well. We will all eventually be part of the old world.

      By the way, some financial experts believe China will overtake the US as the world's largest economy already in 10 years. Others believe it will take 20-30 years.

  22. Seems we agree Susan. Some companies enter into partnership in the Gulf but some do it on their own. However, it is easier to have a joint venture than going it alone which explains why so many companies prefer that option.

  23. You are right Catarina. It does seem the focus is on Asia especially concerning potential opportunities for business growth. Here our media rarely mentions the potential of the gulf and perhaps one reason is we are so near to Asia.

    I also think that western companies that will succeed will be in partnership as per your Richard Branson example. Each region and even countries have their own way of operating.

  24. Well written and thought provoking post. Being orignially from India, I am pleased to see the middle class grow there. True that many choose to work in Dubai due to the wages and tax situation. That said, I've heard too many stories of abuses of these people with horrible working conditions to abusive situations. I only wish that large corporations would consider human rights instead of the fiscal bottom line. It seems that if more attention was put in that arena, we'd really be doing a service to our global community.

    1. What you are referring to Keyuri are workers mainly on building sites. When it comes to wages in companies your salary depends on where you come from i.e. if you are Arabic or Western you get a higher salary. Despite that Asians chose to come to Dubai since they still earn more money.

  25. You certainly do know how to get the rusty gears I call a brain moving Catarina. To be honest, Although I visit often, I comment only occassionaly because I'd need an entire to post to get the thoughts out clearly;) That's a result of how much consideration your posts require, and a good thing IMO.

    At any rate, although there does seem to be a shifting of the classes and their locations, I have to wonder…

    A. How sustainable will these newly emerged middle class members be?

    B. Although there seems to be growth in some sectors, what is the ratio of growth to the decline occurring in other locations? Will it be a wash, an overall decline, or a net gain?

    As always, well thought posting.

  26. …..Continued .

    However, I believe we need to recognize the facts that :
    (1) A disproportionately large amount of oil wealth goes right back to the Western countries, such as the US, UK, and France , in the form of payments for the weapons that these countries neither need nor have the know how or the stomach to use.
    (2) A large segment of the population in these countries has not benefited from the oil wealth and remains poverty stricken — though hard to believe, it is a fact of life in many remote parts of these countries.

    The point is that the "military industrial complex" , and the weapons industries of the developed world are very much aware of these cash gushers and are doing every thing possible to divert the flow of cash to their own coffers.

    As I said , your articles are always a pleasure to read.

    S. Zafar Iqbal

  27. Hi Catarina,
    As usual an insightful article that reflects your first hand knowledge of the region , especially Saudi Arabia.
    It is true that due to oil export a tremendous amount of wealth has shifted to oil countries of the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia. You have a point that many commercial businesses in the West have not fully realized the purchsing power of the emerging middle class in the oil rich countries.

    As always your articles are a pleasure to read.

    Continued ….
    S. Zafar Iqbal

  28. True post. Although it's shocking how much the rich chinese spend. But the average chinese 'middle class' person (actually in the middle, not middle class) runs a tiny shop, works 14 hours a day and rents a tiny flat. There are so many so poor people – including vast numbers of rough sleepers, i had an early train at one of Shanghai's central stations and virtually had to climb over women with babies sleeping on the pavement cobbles, i felt awful and it was quite a shock, while the city near the Terracotta warriors, Xi'An, a well known tourist destination for Chinese too (travel by train etc is so expensive the average middle class chinese person can't afford to leave the country for holidays, which anyway are just the 'spring festival' (visit home) for most people) had garages people were living in, no windows or anything, but built as blocks of flats (i can't explain very well, those lift-up metal garage doors and one windowless concrete room, onto balconies/walkways) and even completely ruined old houses, roofless and everything, that people were living in; and that's touristville, money town.

  29. Great post and insight Catarina! While western countries are globalizing their attention is more focused on their own economic sustainability due to the internal financial distress they are enduring. Essentially, stabalization is the prioritized agenda. I found this article which I think you and your readers might find of interest on "The value of China's emerging middle class" from the McKenzie Quarterly (… but I posted an excerpt below which supports your discussion.

    As China's economy has soared at consistently astonishing rates, many global companies have focused on serving the country's most affluent urban customers. When these well-off urbanites were the only consumers with significant disposable income,1 this strategy of skimming the cream from the top made sense. But new research by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) highlights the emergence of a far larger, more complex segment—the urban middle class, whose spending power2 will soon redefine the Chinese market (see sidebar, "About the research"). While some companies are already focusing on the evolution of this new class, many others have yet to broaden their vision and thus risk missing a significant opportunity.

  30. Another thought-provoking post, Catarina. There's no question that the Gulf countries have enormous wealth, and they spend it on luxury items – hence the presence of virtually every luxury brand here. I suspect the reason for the focus on the BRIC countries is simply that the product of their enormous populations and their income makes them so attractive (even if the incomes are a great deal lower than the Gulf ones, the population size differential is enormous). In fact, due to the size of these populations, I believe you'll find there are more Millionaires in India today than the entire population of any Gulf country, and China's not all that far behind when it comes to the number of very wealthy people.

    For mass products – like mobile phones – the BRIC markets are also hugely important simply because of their numbers. And don't forget that other "sleeping giant" – Africa. I read a statistic the other day showing the per capita income in Africa is significantly higher than China and this, too, is becoming a very attractive consumer market.

  31. Wonder how you infer that "The new emerging middle classes are supporters of globalization but highly nationalistic. " ?

  32. Hi Catarina,
    As always very interesting, I have read a couple of articles regarding this topic, Here is a segment of one of them where they make a similar analogy with Brazil's growing middle class:

    "We still don't know how sustainable the rise of the new middle classes will be," says Brazilian political scientist Amaury de Souza. And to the extent that the new middle class is precarious, its ability to effect political change will be, too. Indeed, some development economists argue that the poor will be a greater force for social change. There is no middle-class parallel to the broad push for land reform among rural leaders in China. They are the agitators, unwedded to the status quo. The developing world's new consumers may have unleashed tremendous new energy at the checkout counter. But their ability to become a force for better government, greater freedoms, less corruption, and more economic liberty is much less certain.

    makes me wonder if the overspending of this new middle class around the world can sustain the pressure of supporting the economies of the world..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.