Adam Taylor writes in the Washington Post on June 2, 2016. A link to the story is here, and the text is pasted below.
This week the Silicon Valley-based ride-sharing app Uber announced it
was getting a huge new injection of funding. But the money wasn't
coming from any of the standard investors from the U.S. tech world.
Instead, it was coming from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi state's Public Investment Fund (PIF) was putting $3.5 billion
into the company, the largest investment in Uber to date. The move
has raised eyebrows, however, due to one of the kingdom's most notorious
domestic policies: Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where
women cannot legally drive.
While the act of driving for women is
not specifically banned, various religious edicts in the country have
meant women are restricted from applying for a driving license,
effectively making the act of driving illegal for Saudi women. While
some women in rural areas do drive without licenses anyway and some
women with foreign driving licenses occasionally get behind the wheel (a
legal gray area used largely in protest), for the most part women in
Saudi Arabia simply don't drive. Polls suggest that support for the
policy within the country is mixed.
Uber, of course, does not deliberately restrict female drivers. At the end of 2015,
the company said that only 19 percent of the drivers using the app were
women but that it was actively trying to increase that percentage. The
Saudi government will now be given a direct say in Uber's decision
making process — PIF was given a seat on the board as part of the deal —
but a representative of Uber said that the investment would definitely
not limit women drivers on the app in the United States or other
countries where women are allowed to drive.
complicated, however, is the role that Uber already plays in Saudi
Arabia's gender politics. While the country's drivers are almost
certainly entirely male, Uber's own figures show their Saudi passengers
are more than 80 percent female. For many women in the country, the app
and its competitors offer a chance at greater autonomy. Public
transportation in Saudi Arabia is largely poor, and it can be difficult
to find a regular taxi at times. Many families can't afford to hire a
driver to take women places on their own.
end result is that if you are a Saudi woman and you want to commute to
work or run errands on your own, a ride-sharing app can become an
important tool. “There are some [women] that take five to 10 trips with
us every day,” Mudassir Sheikha, the founder of local Uber rival Careem told the Los Angeles Times last year. “We don’t see that kind of traffic anywhere.”
has acknowledged the role its app plays in the country, usually
portraying it as a strength. In December the company offered free Uber
rides to Saudi women during the first election in which they were
legally allowed to vote.
“Of course we think women should be allowed to drive,” Jill Hazelbaker, an Uber spokeswoman, told the New York Times this week.
“In the absence of that, we have been able to provide extraordinary
mobility that didn’t exist before — and we’re incredibly proud of
that.” It's expected now that the Saudi investment in Uber should end
lingering questions about the legality of the service in the country.
the company could also be accused of providing a reprieve for the Saudi
government from dealing with the issues surrounding female drivers in
the country. Members of the Saudi royal family have repeatedly suggested
that they believe women should be able to drive — Saudi Arabia’s Deputy
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful voice in the country, recently suggested that "women don’t get their complete rights granted them by Islam.”
Yet no real moves toward lifting the restrictions on female drivers have been seen recently. Crown Prince Mohammed said in April that the country was still "not convinced about women driving."
problem is likely opposition from the Saudi kingdom's powerful
religious community, which largely opposes female drivers. While one
cleric infamously suggested
that driving could damage women's ovaries, many focus on more practical
reasons: What happens if a female driver is pulled over by a male
cop? Saudi Arabia's religious customs would find this type of
interaction between male and female strangers inappropriate (the
interaction between Saudi women and male Uber drivers raises fewer
eyebrows because it is transactional in nature). Saudi Arabia has
announced its intentions to hire more female police officers, but
progress remains slow.
Meanwhile, public transport projects are
also making slim progress. Riyadh's planned metro station is not slated
to open until 2018. And while Uber is an option for some women, for many
it's still too expensive for any kind of regular use. Some observers
wonder if the eventual end of Saudi Arabia's restrictions on female
drivers will come from self-driving cars rather than anything else.
Saudi government gets more complicated still when you consider the
broader economic factors at play. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed has
become the figurehead of a widely publicized push (dubbed Saudi Vision 2030) to
modernize the Saudi economy and end its "addiction" to oil. The hope is
to diversify the country's business world, using the country's vast
wealth it has accumulated over the years to invest in profitable
ventures and focusing on underdeveloped industries like tourism and
There's a social component at work here, too, most notably
in the significant cuts being made to the subsidies given to Saudi
citizens. Female citizens are being encouraged to enter the workforce,
with Mohammed stating the aim was to increase their participation from
22 percent to 30 percent by 2030. Such moves may soon put the ruling
Saudi royals at odds with the country's religious elite, potentially
shattering a partnership that has provided relative stability to the
country for decades.
The investment in Uber seems to be a sign
that the Saudi state is willing to bet big on the country's economic
future. How those economic bets will translate socially is hard to