Uber's deal with Saudi Arabia hasn't gone down well with Saudi women

By Donna Abu-Nasr

The Saudi state's Public Investment Fund (PIF) was putting $3.5 billion into the company, the largest investment in Uber to date. Photo / Getty Images
The Saudi state's Public Investment Fund (PIF) was putting $3.5 billion into the company, the largest investment in Uber to date. Photo / Getty Images

The deal between the only country in the world that bans female drivers and Silicon Valley's ride-sharing company Uber Technologies may be as unusual as it is convenient. What's sure is that it's caused outrage among many Saudi women.

They are angry that Uber's new US$3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund not only means the government directly profits from the ban, but also it effectively - in their view - endorses the country's no-women-behind-the-wheel policy. The investment is part of the ultra-conservative Gulf country's steps toward making money from things other than oil.

But it raised hackles on social media, where women posted pictures showing them deleting Uber apps from their phones.

Uber has operated in Riyadh since 2014, and along with another service, Careem, is popular with Saudi women, who have sought the right to drive for more than two decades.

They are forced to pay chauffeurs, most of them foreigners, or rely on male members of the family to drive them.

"They're investing in our pain, in our suffering," Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi women's historian who teaches at Qatar University, said in an interview from Doha. "This institutionalises women's inferiority and dependency, and it turns women into an object of investment."

Saudi women lead restricted lives beyond the right to drive. They need permission from a mahram, or male guardian, to get an education or to travel and for some medical treatments. Though more jobs are now open to them, hundreds of dollars from the money they make go toward paying drivers.

The deal with Uber, the Saudi Public Investment Fund's highest-profile overseas investment yet, is part of a transformation program to wean the Saudi economy off oil. The official Saudi Press Agency reported the transaction without saying how it will impact the ban on driving. Officials could not be reached during the Saudi weekend.

Jill Hazelbaker, an Uber spokeswoman, said the company at least is adding to the options for people to get from A to B in Saudi Arabia.

"Of course we think women should be allowed to drive," she told the New York Times. "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." An Uber spokeswoman in London couldn't be reached by Bloomberg for comment.

Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned TV network Al-Arabiya, endorsed that view.

"Nobody should view the Uber investment as a way to enforce the driving ban. On the contrary: it is an immediate and practical 'work-around' that actually empowers women and facilitates their movement and productivity," he said.

Al-Fassi, the historian in Doha, said the deal was "opportunistic." She said the Saudi transformation plan was meant to empower women and open more job opportunities for them, helping stimulate the economy. "Women can't be any of those if they're under the mercy of a guardian and the mercy of a driver."

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