The Saudi government app, between controversy and convenience

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The Saudi Arabian government’s e-services app came under fire recently for facilitating the “Saudi government’s patriarchy”, according to Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. Senator Wyden had sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking them to remove the app immediately from their app stores saying that it enables “the abhorrent surveillance of women.”

However, the app called Absher is used by 11 million users to complete more than 160 government procedures, according to a statement by the Saudi Ministry of Interior who operates the app. The app aims to make the provision of government services to citizens and residents easier and more accessible, the ministry added.

The focus should be the law

The focus should not be on the interface, “the app has been available since 2015, but is only now getting attention because of the heightened scrutiny surrounding all things Saudi,” Noura al-Tamimi, research analyst at Arabia Foundation in Washington D.C., told The Guardian.

“Negative headlines on #SaudiArabia perform well in western media, yet these outlets perhaps lost track of what serves a legitimate reporting purpose & what serves political agendas/personal biases,” said al-Tamimi in a tweet.

Pressuring Western companies over domestic #Saudi law won’t solve the problem, she said, adding that Apple and Google were mere platforms for apps like Absher.

She added that the issue of guardianship needs to be “discussed thoughtfully, but media isn’t doing itself any favors.”

The law in Saudi Arabia requires women to receive their guardian’s approval before being able to travel.

In 2017, King Salman issued a new guardianship law which eased restrictions on women to receive government services. The ban on driving by women has been officially lifted effective June 2018, enabling thousands of women to drive.

‘Bringing government to your home’

Omsia al-Madani, a Saudi mother of three living in Riyadh, said that the Absher app “brings the government to your home at the press of a button.”

She described how the procedures used to be difficult in the past, having to go to government offices, standing in line and taking appointments that might be in three to four weeks.

“Everything is convenient. It’s a click away, instead of asking my husband or dad to go to the government offices and stand in line,” she added.

Al-Madani also described how she managed to be one of the first women in Saudi Arabia to receive a driver’s license by using Absher. “I applied through Absher to exchange my American driver’s license to a Saudi one, went to take the driving test, and I was done,” she added.

A former resident of the US state of Missouri, al-Madani said that that app has helped her organize her life, especially since she does not have to wait in a queue, and for government employees to ask her to come back “tomorrow or the day after.”

Noura al-Dakhil, a Saudi woman working in Dubai, said that the app saved her from missing her flight when she was stopped at passport control for not having the correct documentation. “I went to passport control and they stopped me. The gentleman at the counter was very nice and told me that I did not have the correct approvals,” she added.

Al-Dakhil called her husband and within a few minutes, she was allowed through passport control. “We finish all our government transactions through the app now,” she said.

Aseel Shawli, 25, said that she has used the app for many services. “I used it to apply and obtain my driver’s license, to renew my Saudi ID card, and to get the permits needed to employ domestic workers.”

“In the past, I used to have to go through different bureaucratic procedures in order to renew my passport or my ID, but Absher has made it a lot easier for me to do these things,” she added.

Jeddah-based Sumaya Abdulwahab, 52, said that the Absher app was very efficient and easy to use. “I use it frequently to renew my ID card and for other services.”