Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving, has invested USD 3.5bn in US-based online transportation (taxi) service provider Uber. The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), which was incorporated to back projects of economic importance in the Kingdom, invested in Uber with three major aims:
- To focus on non-oil sectors
- To empower women and ensure women’s safety and
- To push up the rate of employment in the country
However, the fairer sex in the country doesn’t seem happy about Uber’s expansion in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women see Uber as an ‘opportunist’ that likes to enjoy profits coming out from women’s plight. The Kingdom’s women have been fighting for decades for equal rights, one of them being the ‘right to drive’. Being a pure Islamic country, the Kingdom forbids women from moving out of their homes without the permission and/or presence of their mahrams (legal male relatives/guardians). Women are not even allowed to go for medical treatments without their male-relatives. This makes travelling and owning jobs very difficult for women in Saudi Arabia. As women are highly dependent on the male relatives or drivers (in case they are going alone somewhere), female employment rate is very low in the country. Working women are forced to spend a significant chunk of their salary on full-time drivers and their accommodation. All in all, the situation of women in Saudi Arabia continues to look rough. Just when Saudi ladies were trying to make their government understand the importance of women’s rights and freedom, Uber entered the field to mutely support the ‘no-women-on-wheels’ policy. According to many women, Uber and the government are using women as ‘cash cows’ for their cultural and financial interests. Uber’s plan to increase mobility in Saudi Arabia is seen as a disguise to hide the government’s willingness to marginalise women.
“Saudi Arabian women took to social media (Twitter) to protest against the expansion of Uber in the Kingdom.”
Following the government’s decision to invest in Uber, Abaya-clad women took Twitter by storm by posting against the US-based company. Photos showing the Uber app being uninstalled were posted to show women’s disapproval. The ‘women’s-right-to-drive’ movement is being supported by some Saudi men too. Nonetheless, the taxi service provider continues to stick to its words that it is not supporting any anti-women laws and is, in fact, providing better and secure transportation options to women. Uber claims that 80% of its customers in Saudi Arabia are women. According to those who support the move, Uber-Saudi partnerships will:
- Help increase employment rate in Saudi Arabia,
- Reduce women’s dependence on rental cars, drivers and male relatives
- Help in reaching remote places where other transportation services do not go
- Help in delivery of medicines from hospitals to female-patients at their homes
Uber, which entered the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia back in 2014, has been growing along with its Emirati app-based competitor Careem. During the 2015 elections, the first ever to allow women voters, Uber had offered free rides to women to reach polling stations. Although Uber is trying hard to win the female-crowd, the government has failed to answer many questions laid by Saudi Arabian women.Will Saudi women ever be able to get on the driver’s seat of the car? Will women’s rights ever be given importance to? Isn’t this a loophole in the country’s Vision 2030 that promises to bring about positive socio-economic changes? All these questions have, unfortunately, gone unanswered.