It’s impossible not to recognize the moment you pass into Dubai’s Al Quoz Industrial Area. Instead of the immense spires of gunmetal gray and glass that populate neighborhoods on either side, the buildings are two- or three-story warehouses in a Creamsicle orange that matches the sand that spills onto the road. It’s an abrupt transition; the area is the unpolished opposite to the glamorous, glossy image that springs to mind when thinking of this part of the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to its topography, Al Quoz is unique among neighborhoods of Dubai in that it has developed an identity, rather than having been assigned one. Dubai’s neighborhoods have names like Media City, Knowledge Village and the International Financial Center: functional, polished campuses that attract denizens of their namesake industries with special economic regulations, jurisdictions and foreign ownership allowances.
By contrast, people associate Al Quoz’s storage hangars and car repair garages with “dust, grit, bad road manners and lack of signage,” said Hetal Pawani, the director of a community arts space called thejamjar (thejamjardubai.com). Still, the area has emerged organically as a creative nerve center, edgy in a conservative city, a place where Dubai’s gallerists, fashion designers and hip entrepreneurs are flocking.
Alserkal Avenue (alserkalavenue.ae), a gated compound of warehouses veneered in gray corrugated metal, was an early addition to the neighborhood in 2007, and now plays host to many of the creative initiatives that come to Al Quoz. The center’s galleries and cafes are a natural habitat for international fashion types, bored-looking beauties sporting man buns and diaphanous separates. It’s the brainchild of Abdelmonem Alserkal, 47, a good-natured, gray-haired real estate heir who created the arts hub from a disused marble processing factory owned by his family.
Mr. Alserkal, elegant in his traditional white robes, met me in a space that was clearly once sleek but is now overflowing with clutter (including his extensive collection of Tintin figurines). His team has recently moved to new offices as the complex completes an expansion that will double its size. For the 50 new spaces, “we had more than 400 applications,” including galleries, shops and start-ups, he said.
Alserkal Avenue’s expansion mirrors the rising international profile of the artists who call Al Quoz home. Last year, the Iranian sculptor Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, represented by the Third Line gallery (thethirdline.com), headquartered at Alserkal, had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York.
Artists and galleries began to decamp to the area in the mid-2000s. The cheap rents helped, of course, but so has the versatility of the structures.
“Art spaces need to build walls, break them down, change things all the time to suit their programming,” said Ms. Pawani of thejamjar, which established itself in Al Quoz in 2007 (and moved to Alserkal Avenue earlier this year). “If a gallery wants to set up in one of Dubai’s prime areas, they will have to rent a shop space, which limits this kind of flexibility.”
A symbiosis emerged between the new tenants and old. The area’s manufacturing and construction industries were convenient for both the raw material and skilled tradesmanship necessary to make art at scale. “You also have neighbors where you can buy light fittings, glass and who can do carpentry, whatever you need,” she said.
Warehouses aren’t the artists’ only neighbors. As the city boomed in the 1990s, property developers bought up the inexpensive desert tracts in Al Quoz, inland from the Persian Gulf coast, to erect living quarters for their workers, most of them migrants from South Asia. These two-story barracks are rectangles of cinder block and concrete, built around a central courtyard and enclosed by high fences topped with barbed wire. Al Quoz is one of the only points in Dubai where the elite fashion set and these low-paid migrant workers cross paths.
The chasm between these groups remains vast, but tentative connections are being established. Last year, the Palestinian artist Hazem Harb exhibited a video and sculpture installation focusing on the laborers building Alserkal Avenue’s expansion; thejamjar has hosted a singing competition for construction workers as part of an “American Idol”-style initiative, Champ of the Camp.
For now, the man with perhaps the most insight into the changing neighborhood, and surely its most popular, is the Chai Guy, a Pakistani entrepreneur who cycles from labor camps to galleries with a samovar of spiced milky tea. At every stop he is met by throngs looking to trade 1 dirham (about 25 cents) for a sugary fix — and a chat, if you happen to speak Punjabi.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the currency of the United Arab Emirates. It is the dirham, not the dinar.