Uber’s Move to Saudi Arabia Could Be Good for Women

A Saudi woman gets out of a car after being given a ride by her driver in Riyadh in 2011.

Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Since Uber launched in 2009, its co-founder Travis Kalanick has consistently shared his passion for disruption and disdain for regulation. Nor has the company been shy about its plans for global domination. Now set up in 29 countries, the smartphone-based car service has been expanding rapidly. This year alone, it officially launched or began test phases in Guangzhou, Rotterdam, Mumbai, Shenzhen, Moscow, Shanghai, and other cities, according to the Uber blog.

Uber has also been rolling out its services in the Middle East. Only this morning the company announced that Uber had arrived in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. But in Saudi Arabia, the San Francisco-based “disruptors” will face regulations of a stronger flavor than those that govern the Washington, D.C. or New York taxi commissions.

Saudi Arabia bans the issuing of drivers licenses to women—just one of many restrictions that curtail the movement of women unless accompanied by a male relative. While no specific traffic law prohibits women from operating a vehicle, religious edicts are interpreted as forbidding it, and women are often arrested if caught. The oil-rich nation only recently suspended a controversial program that automatically sent a text message to a woman’s male guardian if she was traveling out of the country, even if the two were together. And it’s consistently ranked one of the worst countries for women’s rights in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap index.

While women in Saudi Arabia have been slowly winning concessions that allow them to work, access to cheap and safe transportation is still an obstacle to economic independence. Taxis are not considered to “count” as khilwa (or the offense of being alone with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t family), a journalist who travels often in the region told me. But they’re expensive, not abundant, and only wealthier households are able to hire a car and professional driver.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, told me that the soft launch is good timing on Uber’s part. An edict last year forbad people from hailing taxis on the street, making it much harder for women (and men) to use them. Not to mention, many neighborhoods in Riyadh don’t really have street addresses, so Uber’s GPS function is a huge benefit.

While Uber is helpful in terms of basic mobility, Cofman Wittes stopped short of calling it an opening up of transportation for all women in Saudi Arabia. After all, they’ll still need to have enough money to own a smartphone. Nevertheless, a reliable and quick car service with minimal driver and passenger interaction like the one Uber offers could be helpful to a large number of Saudi women, if only they’re allowed to use it freely (let alone drive it).

And will the religious leaders smile on Uber and its potential for women? “Typically, if there’s some segment of society that perceives a modernizing element as threatening, there’ll be a backlash in the press or from the clerics,” Cofman Wittes told me. “Uber is brand new, so we’ll have to see.”

Riyadh should be able to indulge in the wonders of surge pricing, too. But the expansion does raise questions about what responsibilities Uber should have, if any, in markets that restrict the movement of certain groups of people. Uber defines itself as a platform—merely connecting drivers and passengers—but if a woman wants to drive an Uber, will the company follow Saudi Arabia’s gender-based norms and restrictions or the law of supply and demand?

There has been no official statement from Uber or Saudi lawmakers about whether women will be able to drive Uber cars, but it seems safe to assume that they won’t be. When asked for comment, an Uber spokesman wrote: “Uber is everyone’s private driver in nearly 80 cities around the world. With efficiency, reliability and style, Uber will help ensure that residents and visitors in Riyadh—men and women alike—have a great way to seamlessly move around their city. Following launches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, Riyadh marks the latest city in our Middle East expansion.”