Thursday, May 21, 2015

‘Saudi Girls’ Finally Get to Drive, but Only in a Videogame

Story by Sarah Needleman in the May 21, 2015 Wall Street Journal. You can link to the story here, and the text is pasted below.

Saudi Girls Revolution’ is a mobile game made by NA3M, a company whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, above, grandson of the brother of the king. Photo: SHANITA SIMS

In futuristic setting, heroines ride motorcycles, fight villains; a prince’s hope

Saudi Girls Revolution’ is a mobile game made by NA3M, a company whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, above, grandson of the brother of the king. Photo: SHANITA SIMS

Saudi Arabian women this year will finally get the right to drive. It will just have to be in a post-apocalyptic world filled with baboon kings, crystal giants, fire dancers, mutants and zombie cybersoldiers.

That’s the setting for the coming mobile videogame “Saudi Girls Revolution,” in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight the evil tyrannical rulers of a corrupted Arabian Empire. It is being made by NA3M, a company with offices in Jordan and Denmark whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, grandson of the brother of the king.
“I hope every single individual who owns a phone plays,” says the 31-year-old prince. He even means his royal family members. “Their status doesn’t change the fact that they’re still consumers,” he says.
“Saudi Girls Revolution” is set in the late 21st century, where a world war over the loss of natural resources has wiped out three-quarters of Earth’s population. The one city untouched by war: Riyadh, rich with water. After the death of the king, unrest leads to brutal government camps for women.
Enter the eight heroines of “Saudi Girls Revolution.” Dressed in abayas—the full-length black robes worn by some Muslim women—they drive high-speed motorbikes equipped with magical shields and energy blasters, fighting villains and oppressors across treacherous landscapes.
These “Mu’tazilah,” a name with roots in Arabic and Islamic culture that means those who break away or stand apart, possess distinct personalities and backgrounds that loosely reflect various groups of Saudi Arabian society, according to the game’s creators. Um Bandar is the wise, elderly ringleader who teaches women to fight for themselves. Asma and Allanoud are twins who push against religious sectarianism. Hussa is gay; Leila is from the disconnected upper class of society. There is even an “ass-kicking” cyborg, Prince Fahad says. He likens their skills to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
A 35-second video on YouTube gives a taste of the game. In the teaser, the shadow of a woman stands beside a motorcycle, her hair and abaya blowing in the wind. Smoke rises amid debris and rain, as a red meteor falls from the sky. In the background, a woman sings: “From far away they came to life with knowledge. They changed our world then left us without warning.”
Choosing an alternate-universe version of Saudi Arabia for the game’s vehicular setting might seem pointed, considering women there are forbidden to drive. While no law explicitly prohibits them from getting behind the wheel, the government has refused to grant licenses to women.

A poster promoting the coming mobile videogame ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight evil.
A poster promoting the coming mobile videogame ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight evil.
Photo: NA3M
Dozens of Saudi women in recent years have protested the decadeslong ban by driving cars in the kingdom. Still, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry reaffirmed the ban last October, warning that strong measures would be taken against offenders. Earlier this year, two women were detained for more than 70 days for challenging the ban.
Prince Fahad says there is no political motive behind “Saudi Girls Revolution,” though he hopes it will “inspire women to see themselves in roles that are equal to men.” The website for NA3M says concepts like the one behind the game can “challenge convention.” (Mostly, though, it says it wants people to “enjoy a kick-ass game.”)
Prince Fahad, who lives in London, grew up playing foreign-made games with powerful female characters like Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider.” After graduating from Stanford University in 2007, he spent two years at Facebook Inc. working on an Arabic version of the social network.
He wanted to empower Saudi women by showing them—literally—in the driver’s seat. “If we can tell people stories about women driving, maybe they will, maybe it will actually happen,” he says.
Several characters, Prince Fahad says, are named after relatives, like his grandmother.
The inspiration for some villains, such as the game’s evil baboon kings, comes from plants and animals in Saudi Arabian cities. Take Ta’if, for example, where baboons there roam freely, coercing bananas, dates and other fruits from passersby. “If the baboons don’t get what they want, they jump on your car,” he says. “You have to pay the toll.”
It isn’t the first time Prince Fahad has drawn from real life for games. He says an earlier NA3M game, “Run Camel Run,” was inspired by his father, who collects hundreds of camels. Some compete in camel beauty pageants.
“My dad is very conservative,” the prince says, adding that his father wanted him to become an engineer. “He had reservations about me doing anything untraditional when it comes to working. But now he loves [“Run Camel Run”]. It’s his favorite game.”
“Saudi Girls Revolution” is slated for release on the Apple Inc. and Google Inc. app stores sometime later this year. It will be free to download and paired with a digital comic book that tells the back stories of the eight heroines.

An early rendering of a bike being considered for ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ which is still under development and slated for release later this year. Photo: NA3M
“I wanted to engage the Saudi community…to allow them to be comfortable and familiar and used to these types of visuals,” Prince Fahad says. He says he anticipates some backlash in Saudi Arabia over the driving theme, but not from his immediate family because he was raised by strong, independent women.
Videogames that touch on politics, religion and social issues aren’t new. The Sims allowed players to create gay characters since the first game in the life-simulation series was published in 2000. The annual Christian Game Developers Conference promotes games made “specifically to glorify God.” And in the 2014 mobile game “Kim Jong Jetpack,” players take on the role of the North Korean leader and try to save the world from an invasion of evil unicorn pigs, or “unipigs.”
But few, if any, videogames can boast developer credentials linked to royalty. “It makes a huge statement,” says Asi Burak, president of Games for Change, a nonprofit that focuses on inspiring social change through videogames. Prince Fahad spoke at the group’s New York gathering in April.
“You have someone [who’s] part of the establishment in a huge Arab country…starting a game company to deal with Arab culture and Arab themes,” Mr. Burak says. “It’s edgy.”
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Banned from driving, Saudi women turn to Uber and other ride-share apps

Article from the May 7, 2015 Los Angeles Times by Alexandra Zavis, who is reporting from Riyadh. The story is pasted below and a link to the story is here.

When Hala Radwan returned to Saudi Arabia after obtaining a business degree in France, she was eager to put her new skills to use.
She found a job in the marketing department of a big international company. There was just one problem: How would she get to and from work in the only country that does not allow women to drive?
The mass transit options are notoriously poor. The cost of hiring a chauffeur was prohibitive. And she didn’t want to deal with the negative comments she would face if she tried to hail a cab in the conservative kingdom, where a woman using public transportation on her own is often seen as lacking morals.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
Friends tipped her off to a solution: Uber and a regional competitor called Careem.
Smartphone-based ride services are becoming increasingly popular in Saudi Arabia’s major cities, especially among the large number of tech-savvy young people. Customers include foreign businessmen who don’t want to deal with the country’s sometimes chaotic taxi system. But more than 80% of individual users are women, the app companies say.
The apps have increased the mobility of and given a measure of independence to women who would otherwise have to rely on a male relative to ferry them around in the country which enforces a strict form of Islam. But with prices starting at about $5 a ride, even proponents concede it is not a solution for the poor.
Radwan, 29, spends nearly $700 a month on rides from Careem, with which she has a standing order to get to and from work.
The cost is slightly higher than for a taxi, but she finds the apps safer and more reliable. Both Uber and Careem use GPS technology to track their cars. With a few taps, she can see who will be driving her, the type of vehicle he uses and his customer ratings.
Better still, no one can tell she isn’t using a private car.
At least four ride-booking apps are available for download in Saudi Arabia, with more launches said to be in the works. The technology is the same as that used in the U.S. or Europe, but there are some notable differences in approach.
None of the companies work with drivers who use their personal cars to convey passengers at a fraction of the cost of a taxi or limousine service, a practice that has stirred conflict with transportation operators and regulators elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia, they say, they get their cars and drivers from licensed companies and charge comparable rates.
“We recognize that disruption is not the right model for this market,” said Careem’s founder, Mudassir Sheikha. “We’re trying to be good citizens and stay within the rules and offer a better quality of service.”
 His company, which is headquartered in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, was one of the first to enter the Saudi market in summer 2013. It now has nearly 100,000 users in the kingdom, a figure growing at about 40% per month, he said.
The service is available in five cities, including the capital, Riyadh, and the commercial hub of Jidda. Other options include the cab-hailing apps Easy Taxi and Mondo Taxi.
San Francisco-based Uber, which operates in more than 300 cities in 56 countries around the world, entered the fray a year ago. In that time, the number of users has increased twentyfold, one of the fastest growth rates in the Middle East or Europe, said Majed Abukhater, who serves as the company’s regional general manager.
“A lot of Saudis have used Uber globally and were really excited to see it launched here,” he said. Limo and car rental companies also like the arrangement because they are getting more business, he said.
Late last year, the transportation committee of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it was looking into the operations of several apps, which it accused of using drivers who were not authorized to carry customers in the kingdom – charges denied by Uber and Careem.
The companies say the response from government officials has been mostly positive. There were challenges getting started, however.
Many drivers needed training to provide the premium service touted by the apps. They weren’t used to opening doors for their passengers or helping them with luggage. Their cars weren’t well maintained, and punctuality was a problem.
“Drivers were not even wearing proper uniforms. They were wearing slippers,” Sheikha said. “So we ended up having to buy them uniforms. ... Then we had to start putting incentives in place for them to wear those uniforms.”
Although many Saudis own smartphones, credit card use is low. So Careem introduced a cash payment option. The company also operates a 24-hour call center, a reassuring feature for customers who may not be used to doing all their transactions online.
Customers say they appreciate the more professional and reliable service. There are few other transportation options, especially for women. Riyadh is building a metro system, but it is years from completion. Buses operate on limited routes and are mostly used by men.
“There are some [women] that take five to 10 trips with us every day,” Sheikha said. “We don’t see that kind of traffic anywhere.”
There is no law prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but there are fatwas, or religious edicts issued by conservative Muslim clerics. As a result, the government won’t grant women licenses.
The effective ban, which is not enforced in other Muslim countries, is a product of the rigid segregation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia. Concerns have been raised here that allowing women to drive could put them into contact with male traffic officers, or in the case of an accident, male medics. One cleric even suggested that driving could harm a woman’s ovaries, a suggestion ridiculed by many Saudis on social media.
Female activists who have defied the ban, posting images of themselves behind the wheel on social media, have in some cases been arrested. Two women who were detained at the border when one of them attempted to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia spent more than 70 days in custody before they were released in February.
Families with means will hire a chauffeur to take female members to work, to school, out shopping or to friends’ houses. But even that option has limitations.
“I have a driver, but sometimes he is too busy bringing my sisters from school,” said Gamar al-Douh, 24, who comes from a family of three girls with no brothers to help with the driving. “If I don’t have someone to take me, I use Uber.”
Radwan and her husband considered a chauffeur, but decided against it. The couple got married two years ago and are trying to save money to buy a house and raise a family.
Monthly salaries for a driver start around $400, but can be twice as high if the person is experienced and pays for his own accommodation.
Few Saudis are willing to do the work, so families typically face the additional expense of sponsoring a foreign driver for a work permit. Obtaining the visa and other documentation can cost between $4,000 and $7,000, Radwan said.
Even if the couple could afford a chauffeur, she doesn’t know where they would put him. They live in an apartment building in Jeddah that does not have rooms available for servants.
Her husband could give her a lift to work, but that would take him considerably out of his way.
Radwan used taxis while living abroad but avoids them in Saudi Arabia. Many cars are old and dirty, she said. In most cases, the meters don’t work, leaving passengers to haggle over the fare.
She and her friends used to be constantly swapping phone numbers for good drivers, but she said they weren’t always available.
“If you can’t find a driver, you have to wait for your husband. If not your husband, then your brother. And you know sometimes everyone is just so busy that going from point A to point B is really difficult,” she said. “You can’t even walk because [often] there’s no sidewalk, so you’re afraid of getting hit by a car.”
Now, the conversation with her friends has changed. If one of them needs a driver, they tell her, “Why don’t you take Uber or Careem?”
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