Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. That leaves women reliant on male relatives or paid services to get to stores, school, and (increasingly) work. So when Uber launched in Riyadh in early 2014, its impact went beyond the general convenience of tech-enhanced ride hailing. The company has made a real difference in Saudi women’s mobility.
In December, entrepreneur and health advocate Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud will host 10KSA, a potentially groundbreaking breast cancer awareness and education event that aims to bring 10,000 Saudi women together for the first time in the country’s history. Uber is a cosponsor of the event, and Princess Reema has requested that 2,000 cars be on call that day to help make sure that as many women as possible can attend. But the service is already a daily resource for women in the country—Saudi Arabia general manager Majed Abukhater says that while his office doesn’t keep precise gender data, observation and anecdotal evidence suggest that 70% to 90% of Saudi Uber riders are women.
“A lot of them, I would say, are young women,” says Abukhater. “We have some data to show that these women are starting to rely on Uber a lot more for their daily commutes; the proportion of trips that we see in Saudi during the weekday is actually very high relative to other locations. That’s just kind of one indicator to tell us that women are really starting to rely on Uber for their daily commutes to work, or to school, or to university.” While women comprise only 13% of the Saudi workforce, they make up a full 60% of the college student population, so this is not an insignificant number of daily trips.
“I use Uber every time I’m [in Riyadh], to get to and from the airport, to go to meetings, or to visit friends,” says Shahd AlShehail, a Saudi national who lives in Dubai but returns home often to visit family and for her work as founder of Just, a platform that helps brands through data and storytelling. “Many of my friends do, as well as family. Usually to go to work, run errands, or go to a social gathering.”
Before Uber came to the country—it currently operates in Jeddah and Dammam, in addition to Riyadh—women relied on private drivers (if they could afford them) or the limo companies that Uber now works with (for regulatory reasons, Uber in Saudi Arabia does not work with contracted drivers using their own cars—all Uber rides go through existing companies). “But the wait times would be half an hour,” says Abukhater. “Sometimes these transport companies would be totally booked. The women would be literally, in some situations, unable to move around the city. Now that we’ve added this technology layer into the existing transport infrastructure, women don’t have to call 10, 20 companies to try to find a driver. They can literally just open up the app. That’s why we’ve seen the growth that we’ve seen.”
AlShehail agrees: “Previous to having on-demand transportation services, the options were limited to having a personal driver, or hiring one for a day. Both of which lacked flexibility”—and the latter was often unreliable or overly expensive, she says. The one thing she feels Uber could do to improve the service is “expand their fleet.”
Increasing availability is certainly Uber’s priority in Saudi Arabia. Abukhater says that when Uber launched, the average wait time for a car in Riyadh was about 15 minutes. Now, after refining and optimizing the system, “the wait time around the entire city—and it’s a pretty large, spread-out city—is closer to about six or seven minutes.”
One advantage that Abukhater says that the service had in Saudi Arabia upon launching was that people in the country were actually already familiar with it. “Relative to other places, the government and semigovernment entities have been very ambitious and receptive to the technology,” he says. “Saudis are very, very well traveled. During the summers and large breaks, they go off to Europe, North America, and Asia a lot, and they’ve been using Uber there. When we launched in Saudi, a lot of them had already used Uber around the world.”
Virtually all hired drivers in the country are expats from Africa or Asia (Saudi-born men feel a stigma against service-industry work), and since Uber assists with drivers’ residency and work-permit requests, the company’s entry into Saudi Arabia has helped create infrastructure in the transportation industry. “We’re connecting expats with existing limo companies so that they can come on the Uber platform, so that we can increase our driver base,” says Abukhater.
Because Uber drivers are working through established transportation companies, Abukhater says that the company’s presence in the country hasn’t raised any new concerns about women traveling alone with male drivers, which has been an issue in other regions (including the U.S.), where new ride sharing services, including Uber, rely on car owners who aren’t licensed as transport providers.
Abukhater says that Uber is considering expanding within the country, though it’d like to get operations in the existing cities as efficient as possible first—wait times in Jeddah and Damman are still higher than in Riyadh. Still, the influx of visitors to Mecca for the holy month of Ramadan, which runs until July 17, has offered a helpful trial run.
“Muslims from around the world come for prayer,” he says. “Mecca’s about an hour away from Jeddah. We have an Uber service that takes people back and forth. Last year, we were only like a month old. It was during our soft launch period, so we didn’t see an impact. This year, it’s been amazing. Even in one day, we are getting five times as many trips as we used to get in the entire month last year. Saudi is a very big country, and we feel like we’re just still scratching the surface.”