In the only country in the world where women can’t drive, the launch of an app that allows users to book cars online might just offer women some relief from the stifling rules that forbid them to operate a vehicle.
Uber, a San Francisco-based technology company that developed the software, used in more than 29 countries, entered the Saudi Arabian market this week and is running a test program in the capital of Riyadh. By initially offering rides at promotional rates, the company hopes to tap into a rich vein of customers looking for a ride in one of the most congested cities of the Middle East.
While Uber stands to profit off a culture in which half of the population is forced to rely on a driver, the company told Al Jazeera its app could empower women. “Choice is a beautiful thing, and that is especially true for those women who currently have limited access to reliable transportation options,” Uber said. Riyadh does not have a public transportation system.
In October an estimated 100 women staged a driving protest as part of an ongoing campaign for women's right to drive. Madeha al-Ajroush, a leader of the action who proudly planned on buying a car in her own name in Riyadh Thursday, told Al Jazeera she has already downloaded the app and welcomed the technology.
“You don’t have to talk. You don’t have to wait. You know how long it’s going to take,” she said.
Ajroush said the technology enhances women’s mobility but remains expensive and stops short of helping those “who really need it,” she said, such as the women who live in remote areas or don’t have Internet access or credit cards.
“It’s still very costly,” she added, with rides starting at about $5, which have the potential of becoming more expensive when demand is high. Uber's algorithm adjusts the price, depending on factors of supply and demand. And of course, “you’re still under the mercy of finding a car,” Ajroush added.
Despite drivers’ being an exception to the social rule that women can’t be alone in the company of an unrelated man, there is still some stigma attached to using taxis, which often operate solo, without the backing of an official entity.
Reem Taibah, a physics student from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, who shares a driver with her mother and is discouraged by her family from using taxis, told Al Jazeera that booking a car online wouldn’t expose women to the social stigma that’s still attached to hailing a cab on the streets.
“You don’t really trust the cab driver. For example, my mom would be pissed at me if I used one,” Taibah said, adding, “It’s not safe. It’s a stranger driving you. That’s why cabs are not preferable here.”
Also, many cabs don’t have meters, are "very cheap" but are known to charge women more because they know they can, she said.
And in a country where the middle class is rapidly eroding, a growing number of families cannot afford to pay a driver, leaving many women reliant on their husbands to take them to work or have to wait for hours to leave home until someone has time. With no money for a driver, they end up using ad hoc chauffeurs, people who hold other jobs but make money on the side from driving. “A respectable driver who works somewhere — it’s like an upgraded taxi,” Taibah said.
Tapping into an informal market that already serves some women, Uber capitalizes on female users’ need to access a network of trusted drivers when other options are lacking. Detailed information about the drivers, including photos and license plate numbers, increases safety, the company said in a statement.
For some women, the app could be a useful tool in the struggle for greater mobility. “I think it’s really good. I think it can really work,” Taibah said.