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More than A to B: Why Uber is strategic for Saudi women

For hundreds of thousands of Saudi women, who are banned from driving, the ride-hailing app is seen as critical solution

Rua’a Alameri

Published: Updated:

In most countries where Uber operates, the ride-hailing app represents a more convenient way of get around.

But for hundreds of thousands of Saudi women, who are banned from driving, the app is seen as critical solution.

In a country where public transport is limited, many women relied on male guardians with cars or traditional taxis to get from A to B - until Uber, and its main competitor Careem - came along.

“It’s like having your own car because it picks me right from my doorstep,” Shaheed Larey, a Saudi woman from the capital Riyadh, told Al Arabiya English.

“I use Uber for a lot of things, like if I go shopping or if I meet my friends,” she said.

Shahed Sharif, who also hails from Riyadh told Al Arabiya English that she finds Uber “very safe and affordable.”

Traditional taxis are often seen as troublesome and potentially dangerous for Saudi women, boosting the popularity of companies such as Uber and Careem. According to Uber, women make 80 percent of its 130,000 riders in the kingdom.

Before the ride-hailing service launched in Saudi, many women relied on private drivers - if they could afford them. Yet after Uber launched its operations in the country in 2014, and Careem a year earlier, many international news outlets have praised their influence in the kingdom. One described the transport apps as making a “real difference in Saudi women’s mobility.”

Understanding its unique market value in Saudi, Uber and Careem won favor among many in the kingdom after they gave in December free rides to women who wished to vote in municipal elections.

“The good thing about Uber is that you can track it on your phone and it gives you the details of the driver and the car,” Sharif said, adding that using the app provides a sense of security.

Uber allows users to request drivers and cars their location and drop them at the desired destination, while tracking the journey on the mobile phone.

Big new stake

On Wednesday, Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund invested $3.5 billion in the global transportation company. The purchase is expected to boost “women’s participation in the workforce,” the fund’s managing director said.

A Saudi royal, Princess Reema Bander al-Saud, told the UK’s Financial Times that she believed the stake to be “an indicative investment of where we are moving for the country.”

Saudi plans to get more women to join the workforce. However, a lack of cheap and convenient transport for women is a big obstacle to their employment.

Maryam al-Subaie, a Saudi businesswoman who uses Uber almost daily, said that the Uber deal “is a bold step in the right direction.” Subaie owns the country’s first women’s-only mobile phone repair shop, which operates in Riyadh.

“Because of the nature of my work and my need for transportation, it used to be very difficult because I couldn’t afford my own driver. Or a driver couldn’t get to me when I needed him,” she told Reuters.