Uber’s ambitious designs for the Middle East

Sunday 19/06/2016
An Egyptian driver working for Uber Transportation Company waits for customers in Cairo.

London - Saudi Arabia’s decision to invest sovereign wealth funds in Uber raised the upstart taxi service compa­ny’s profile from just an­other success story to a contender for global domination in the trans­portation business.
San Francisco-based Uber Tech­nologies Incorporated on June 1st announced that Saudis’ Public In­vestment Fund (PIF) had invested $3.5 billion, making it the largest single investor in the firm and one of the biggest investments in a pri­vately owned start-up. Uber is val­ued at $62.5 billion, making it Sili­con Valley’s richest company not publicly traded.
As a part of the deal, PIF Man­aging Director Yasir al-Rumayya was given a seat on the Uber board of directors, along with company founders Travis Kalanick and Gar­rett Camp, among others.
“We’ve seen first-hand how this company has improved urban mo­bility around the world and we’re looking forward to being part of that progress,” Rumayya said in a statement.
Bringing its unique business model to areas searching for eco­nomic opportunities and providing a cost-effective method of trans­port, Uber operates in 15 locations across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with plans for sig­nificant expansion.
“In October, we committed $250 million to the region and part of that was expanding into more cit­ies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Paki­stan,” Uber Middle East spokesman Shaden Abdellatif said.
According to Uber, Cairo is its largest and fastest growing mar­ket in the MENA region, having expanded more than 200% in the last year. The technology platform creates more than 3,000 work op­portunities a month, with 10% of the drivers in Cairo being female, a figure that is growing steadily.
The MENA region does come with challenges. For example, op­erating in Egypt, where harassment of women is a widespread problem, prompted Uber to work with Har­assMap, a mobile application that helps women report and avoid ar­eas of high concentrations of har­assment incidents.
“In Pakistan, we also partnered with Rabbt, a social [non-govern­mental organisation] NGO, to train drivers against sexual harassment and we continue to explore ways with which we can develop social initiatives,” Abdellatif said, adding that Uber is working with a number of NGOs in training drivers to rec­ognise and prevent sexual harass­ment.
Uber has been operating in Saudi Arabia since early 2014 and, in a society where women are banned from driving, it is no surprise that 80% of Uber’s customers in the kingdom are female. However, with the announcement of the huge Saudi investment in the company, a number of female activists called for a boycott of Uber to bring the driving debate into the spotlight.
Although the Saudi government did not comment on the uproar, an Uber spokesman told the New York Times: “Of course, we think women should be allowed to drive… 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.”
Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, a businesswoman and pro­ponent of women’s rights who re­cently joined Uber’s international policy advisory board, worked to bring the service to Saudi Arabia. She said the investment by the kingdom is an indicator of positive change.
Two-income households in Sau­di Arabia are becoming the norm, with a service like Uber lessening the burden on Saudi males, while giving Saudi women additional mo­bility options.
The investment by Saudi Arabia is in line with its Vision 2030 eco­nomic and social plan, which in­cludes goals to empower women in the work place.
“Our experience in Saudi Arabia is a great example of how Uber can benefit riders, drivers and cities and we look forward to partner­ing to support their economic and social reforms.” Kalanick said in a statement.
Uber head of operations in Sau­di Arabia, Majed Abukhater, said the company hopes to increase its monthly number of trips 60% in 2016.