Wednesday, January 27, 2016

An Argument Demanding a Second Look

This opinion piece on the English language daily the Saudi Gazette of January 27, 2016 was written by Tareq A. Al-Maeena. A link to his article is here, and the text is pasted in below.

Many Saudi visitors to the UAE on their return to the Kingdom are heard to mutter: Why them and why not us?  The country has in recent times become a draw for Saudis wanting to escape abroad for a short holiday. Tourists have been flocking to the UAE by the hundreds of thousands.  And they don’t visit only once. Families make up the bulk of visitors, but there are also a sizable number of single males and females who venture to the Emirates on their own.
What is it that attracts these visitors from a nearby country?  It is certainly not the weather as there are no significant climatic differences between the two countries.  Nor is there a dramatic change in topography that might induce some to visit.  Shops and restaurants are not much different in both countries.  Yet in the balance of travel, visitors from the Saudi side most likely outnumber their UAE counterparts by 10 to 1.
There are significant reasons why Saudis would make the trip from the Kingdom to the UAE.  The first is that they find the UAE more similar than different from their own culture.  And besides a host of other reasons such as world class entertainment, there is the compelling draw of a country that places no unjustified restrictions on its women.
A resident of Jeddah explained her own reasons why she chooses the UAE during the holidays rather than spending her time in the Kingdom.  She says: “It’s all about personal freedom.  The UAE is an Islamic country which follows a similar code to Saudi Arabia, yet allows women choices that we find denied here.  And the number one irritant and nuisance to all women here is not allowing them to drive their own cars.  Perhaps we can attempt to get a discussion going in the Shoura Council pertaining to this matter by using a different logic; perhaps the argument of conservation?”
Her novel argument went as follows: “The fastest and least expensive way to conserve water and other resources in Saudi Arabia and save some of our outbound tourist dollars would be to allow women to drive! Where is the connection? Allow me to give an explanation in a very rough estimate of figures:  If women were given the right to drive, approximately one million drivers could eventually be sent back to their home countries. Each one of these men uses about 300 liters of water a day, (about 1/3 cubic meter).
That’s 300,000,000 liters per day for a million drivers. That’s 90,000,000,000 liters per year, with allowances made for their vacation time. That’ 90,000,000 cubic meters per year of water consumed by drivers alone.
“The desalination plant in Saudi Arabia produces 1,000,000 cubic meters of water per day. That’s 365,000,000 cubic meters a year. If we had a million less drivers we would only need 275,000,000 cubic meters. The Shuaiba desalination plant would thus have 25 percent surplus water for people to use if women could drive their own cars. Double check the math.
“The same approximate figures would hold true for electricity consumption.
Even if drivers were to be slowly phased out, this would amount to an enormous saving for the country in terms of water, energy, and of course finances as well. The employment of drivers is becoming an increasing financial burden. Some women’s salaries are spent solely on a driver. Should women  then not receive  government  subsidies for  each household, as compensation for the expenses of having to pay recruiting agencies, visas, air fare, medical check-ups, driver’s licenses, traffic tickets, extra living quarters, furniture, insurance, meals, medical bills and medication, and of course water and electricity, etc., in addition to drivers’ salaries?
“What a huge financial burden for a country with a shrinking middle class, and with minimum wages not much higher than that paid to a driver brought in from a developing country, many of whom have never driven a car before coming to work in Saudi Arabia. That brings up the safety issue as well: safety on the road, safety allowing one’s children day in and day out in the presence of a stranger.
“Which leads me to my next point. The burden of women being banned from driving is also of a psychological and social nature. How has a conservative society such as Saudi Arabia ever allowed itself to bring total strangers into their homes, not knowing the slightest thing about their past, or their moral conduct? It’s a mystery. The whole issue of the ban on women driving is a mystery and a paradox.  And you wonder why we all escape to the UAE?  Perhaps it’s because they have got it right!”
And thus the woman concludes her argument with new reasoning.  The fact that she has chosen an original slant to a social issue indicates that this issue will simply not go away.  Nor will those marginalized by these restrictions remain silent. The issue should not be blanketed by the traditions and beliefs of some. One must not be dismissive of her arguments but look at the overall impact through the eyes of this woman.
– The author can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena

Friday, January 22, 2016

Driving Change: UO grad sees change arrive for women in Saudi Arabia

Article from University of Oregon (USA) about Aisha Almana, one of the original women drivers in 1991 in Riyadh. A link to the story is here,  and it's pasted in below. The article is by Melody Ward Leslie.

At a time when most Saudi women received little or no formal education, one future Duck set out on a quest that eventually led to a PhD. Then she returned home to become her country’s leading activist for justice, equality, and respect for women.
Aisha Almana
Aisha Almana, BS ’70, thought she was at the airport to see her father off. Instead, he led her to the plane and explained that he was bringing her to Egypt because their own country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, had no schools for girls.

She was eight years old. Bursting into tears, she asked, “Where is my mother?”
Sheikh Mohammed Abdulla Almana knelt to be eye-to-eye with his daughter. “I don’t want you to be like your mother or your grandmother,” he told her. “That’s why I am taking you to be educated. I want you to come back and help the women of your country.”
With these words, he launched Almana toward a place in history as the mother of Saudi feminism.
Four years later, armed with a sixth-grade certificate of completion, she returned home to Khobar just as Saudi Arabia was opening its first schools for girls. All the teachers were wives of workers from non-Arab countries because most Saudi women were illiterate. Sheikh Almana wanted to set a precedent, so he installed his now-13-year-old daughter as the region’s first female school principal and gave her behind-the-scenes daily advice on how to run the school.
“All of the students were in the first grade, even though many were my age or older,” she says, noting that she worked as principal for one school year and then went to Lebanon to continue her education.
She has since achieved a series of firsts in a wealthy country that still denies women basic rights. To the outside world, she’s best known as a leader of the historic 1990 protest against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. The protest was Almana’s idea, and it grew out of her experiences as an undergraduate sociology major at the UO.
“The University of Oregon gave me the opportunity to recognize that I am a human being equal to anyone else,” she says. “I am a free soul, and I am my own driver.”
Going to college in the United States was also Almana’s idea. When her father refused to pay for it—but didn’t forbid her from going—she made her own way by winning a scholarship. She arrived in Eugene in September 1968 and found a campus bubbling with antiwar protests and demonstrations for women’s rights.
For a young woman from a kingdom where freedom of speech was unheard of, the notion of civil disobedience as a tool for social change represented an entirely new way of thinking.
“It was an eye-opener, this idea that you have the right to express yourself and you can differ with others, but it doesn’t mean you are enemies,” she says.
"I am a human being equal to anyone else. I am a free soul, and I am my own driver."
However, she credits her awakening as an activist to a demonstration of a different sort. On her first day of classes, a professor greeted students by placing a jar of pebbles on a table and pronouncing it full. Then, he closed the door and started taking off his clothes.
“I was shocked,” she says, her eyes still widening at the thought of it 45 years later.
She hardly had time to absorb that it was a trick (he was wearing another layer of clothing) when the professor dumped sand into the jar. Was it full now? he asked. Almana thought so, but next he poured in water, which settled into crannies hiding between the rocks and grains of sand.
“This affected me tremendously,” she says. “He showed how what you see is not the reality, and things can change.”
Things can change.
In that spirit, Almana and 46 other women summoned their courage and met at a Safeway parking lot in Riyadh 25 years ago this November 6. They piled into 14 cars, formed a convoy, and drove sedately through the busiest part of the city. On their second lap, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice reported them, and came with the police to arrest them.
All the women—drivers and passengers alike—were thrown in jail. In mosques across the kingdom, imams denounced each woman, by name, as immoral. Their passports were confiscated. Those with government jobs were fired. Fortunately, Prince Salman, who became king in 2015, intervened so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of religious extremists. Eventually, their passports and jobs were reinstated.
“It was worth it,” Almana says. “We made a statement about the right to drive our own lives.”
Nevertheless, the driving ban still holds, along with a host of other restrictions. Women cannot interact with men. They must obtain written permission from their male guardians—and a chaperone must accompany them—every time they want to go anywhere or do anything outside their homes or workplaces.
The endless taboos range from financial (women can’t open bank accounts without their husbands’ approval) to impractical (they can’t try on clothes while shopping).
Almana says research indicates the exceptional mistreatment of Saudi women stems from misinterpretation of Islam, cultural differences between nomads and city dwellers, and US foreign policy decisions that backfired. “They thought they were fighting communism and they ended up with Al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and Khomeini,” she says.
A devout Muslim, Almana began reading the Koran as a child, and she says it teaches that women and men are equal.
“At least two clergymen have come forward to say their research found nothing in the Koran to require guardianship, yet hundreds of regulations require a guardian’s permission,” she says. “We discovered that most were created by civil servants, based on their personal or tribal traditions or beliefs, without having any basis in Islam.”
Change is slow, but Almana sees signs of progress. More than 56 percent of Saudi college students are now women. Polls show a majority of Saudi men favor letting women drive. In August, for the first time in history, Saudi women began registering to vote.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that she directs the largest group of hospitals in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, which borders the Persian Gulf, the authorities arrest Almana at least once a year. “My poor husband always has the burden of being told to try to control his wife,” she says with a gentle laugh. “They don’t know that he married a woman who cannot be controlled and cannot be owned.”
Suddenly tears well up in her warm brown eyes. None fall, but her voice becomes heavy with grief.
“Do you know,” she asks, “that in Saudi Arabia, a husband or a guardian is not punished if he intentionally kills his wife or his daughter? A father beat his five-year-old daughter to death because he suspected her of sexual activity.
“He could kill her because he owned her. This is what we want to change.”

Melody Ward Leslie, BA ’79, is a UO staff writer.
You can watch Almana speak at an event sponsored by the UO's Global Studies Initiative here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Washington Post: Saudi officials once jailed this woman for driving. But she found her way back on the ballot.

Saudi activist Loujain Hathloul as she drove toward the Saudi border in December 2014. (Loujain Hathloul/AP)
Brian Murphy of the Washington Post writes (December 9, 2015) about Loujain Hathloul who is a candidate in the upcoming municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. You can link to the story here, and the text is pasted below.

She was jailed for 10 weeks for driving. But Saudi officials will let her run.
In a surprise reversal Wednesday, Saudi Arabia lifted its election block on activist-slash-candidate Loujain Hathloul, who gained fame last year by live-streaming her defiance of the kingdom’s ban driving for women.
The decision clears the way for Hathloul’s name to be on Saturday’s ballot in Riyadh as part of nationwide races for municipal council seats – the first elections in the ultraconservative kingdom to allow women to compete and vote. More than 900 women are among the nearly 7,000 candidates.
Until late Wednesday, Hathloul was blackballed along with some other prominent women activists – including two human rights campaigners. For weeks, Hathloul had pushed back, seeking some leverage to get officials to reconsider the ban.
She gave interviews to anyone who would listen. She used connections within the ruling system to lobby for a review of the ban.
“Basically, I annoyed them,” she said. “I guess it worked. It’s amazing news.”
Saudi officials have given no public explanations at the rollback -- just as they made no formal disclosures on the reasons for keeping some candidates off the election lists.
But what likely tipped the scales was a relentless social media blitz by Hathloul’s supporters. Saudi rulers have long conceded ground to online critics – giving them ample room to grouse, network and muse. Crackdowns come when it crosses over into what authorities perceive as challenges to the state or status quo – meaning the ruling family and the powerful religious establishment that has a hand in all key decisions.
This week, however, all of Saudi officialdom is looking to make a good impression with the world’s media shifting its attention to the elections. It's unclear whether the ban will remain in place for the two other women rights activists.
“After I was banned, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t ignored,” said Hathloul. “This means, of course, making some noise.”
She’s no stranger to that. In late 2014, Hathloul got in a car in the United Arab Emirates and drove toward Saudi Arabia with a video camera and her UAE driver’s license. Part of the trip was live-streamed onto the Web.
She was arrested by Saudi border officials and spent 73 days in jail, making her for a time among the best-known Saudi activists.
A year earlier, her husband-to-be, a well-known Saudi satirist named Farhad Albutairi, helped produce one of his memorable videos: “No Woman, No Drive” to the tune of the Bob Marley classic “No Woman, No Cry.”
Hathloul said her initial motivation to run for a council seat was simply to boost the number of women taking part. After the ban, she now wonders if she could pull off a win.
 “The goal has changed,” she said. “I want to make a point. It’s a personal thing now. The municipal councils have nothing to do with the driving ban. The councils are just about fixing up the community. The driving ban is another fight. It's definitely not forgotten.”
Brian Murphy joined the Post after more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has written three books.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Petition to Urge GM Boycott of KSA until Driving Ban Lifted

There is a new petition up on urging the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, to boycott Saudi Arabia until the ban on women driving is lifted.

You can link to the petition here and sign your name if you wish.

The iniquity of imposing a ban and fees

Great post (Sept 26, 2015) from Saudi Women's Weblog about the driving issue. A link to the post is here and I'm pasting in the post below.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Saudi Arabia is that the ban on women driving is societal. As a matter of fact, women driving is only prohibited in the cities. In traditional rural areas, women drive with no objections by society or government. If tribes living their traditional lifestyles in their villages have no objection to women driving, why would their more modern urban counterparts object? The answer is they don’t either. Women and men across the country have defied the ban either by driving or speaking out with no societal consequences but rather governmental. People have been suspended from their jobs, imprisoned and banned from travel simply for wanting the ban lifted. There is no definite answer as to why the government will not allow each woman to choose for herself whether or not to drive. However, there have been a few analyses as to why the ban is so strictly implemented. One of these is this article by Dr. Mohammed bin Saud AlMasoud published in Aleqtisadiah Newspaper on 19/July/2014. Here I’ve translated it for everyone:
Screenshot 2015-09-26 22.59.22
Lifting the ban on women driving will result in big losses for many. The
Lifting the ban on women driving will result in big losses for many. The campaign Women Driving is More Chaste addresses the abnormality of permanently imposing a strange man on Saudi women. The success of this campaign will be challenged by three institutions. These institutions will most likely constitute pressure lines to prevent women from obtaining the human and civil right of driving their own cars.
First: Fee-charging government bodies
– One and a half million drivers’ visas worth two and a half billion SAR (six hundred sixty-six million USD).
– The General Passports Department earns one and a half billion SAR (four hundred million USD) from residency fees.
– Health insurance fees bring in a minimum of seven hundred million SAR (a hundred eighty-six million USD).
Thus, the Interior Ministry will lose approximately five billion SAR (a billion and three hundred thirty-three million USD) if women driving were to be legalized. These enormous returns will start to dwindle and fall until ultimately they become nothing. It’s no wonder that the Interior Ministry is not overly enthusiastic about the idea of lifting the ban and are firm and strong against women who attempt to exercise their right to drive.
Second: Taxi companies
The vast majority of this companies are owned by elites. 85% of their business depends on women seeking transportation in the bigger cities. These businesses generate unbelievably huge sums that reach to five million SAR (a million and three hundred thousand USD) a month. Naturally, if women were allowed to drive, this enormous financial resource will gradually dry up. Hence those millions a month will be no more. Again, it’s no surprise that these elites would not be too excited or happy to see the ban lifted. This is what happen in Qatar when they lifted the ban on Qatari women driving. The taxi companies’ profits fell to a quarter of what they were. It is especially worrying for the Saudi companies now that taxi charges rose a 100% in the cities after fees on foreign recruitment rose.
Third: Recruitment agencies and airlines
When we talk about one and a half million visas then we are also saying one and a half million flights worth up to three billion SAR (eight hundred million USD), as well as one and a half million recruitment contracts valued at eight billion SAR (two billion USD) minimum. The price of recruiting one driver from abroad is about eight thousand SAR (two thousand USD) which adds up to thirteen billion SAR (three and a half billion USD). That is a number that would be difficult to let go. Experts are forecasting that under the current ban the number of drivers is expected to double to three million foreign drivers. Thus, these profits will also increase a 100%.
All the billions mentioned above are paid by Saudi families and specifically Saudi women, not once but many times over. What’s more, financial penalties up to twice the original cost are imposed if there is any delay in payment. For example, the driver’s residency renewal fees double if they are not paid on time.
Hence, we have so many winners at the expense of Saudi women. Women, who are weak, tender, helpless citizens in need of protection and care, represent 60% of humanity’s workforce, and yet women have to bear all these consequences. Since the ban on women driving is implemented with threats of firmness and strength against all who defy it, it would only be fair to revise all these driver recruitment fees and fines. These fees add up to about six billion SAR (one and a half billion USD) paid by Saudi families, in particular, Saudi women because drivers are imposed on them by necessity.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

‘Saudi Girls’ Finally Get to Drive, but Only in a Videogame

Story by Sarah Needleman in the May 21, 2015 Wall Street Journal. You can link to the story here, and the text is pasted below.

Saudi Girls Revolution’ is a mobile game made by NA3M, a company whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, above, grandson of the brother of the king. Photo: SHANITA SIMS

In futuristic setting, heroines ride motorcycles, fight villains; a prince’s hope

Saudi Girls Revolution’ is a mobile game made by NA3M, a company whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, above, grandson of the brother of the king. Photo: SHANITA SIMS

Saudi Arabian women this year will finally get the right to drive. It will just have to be in a post-apocalyptic world filled with baboon kings, crystal giants, fire dancers, mutants and zombie cybersoldiers.

That’s the setting for the coming mobile videogame “Saudi Girls Revolution,” in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight the evil tyrannical rulers of a corrupted Arabian Empire. It is being made by NA3M, a company with offices in Jordan and Denmark whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, grandson of the brother of the king.
“I hope every single individual who owns a phone plays,” says the 31-year-old prince. He even means his royal family members. “Their status doesn’t change the fact that they’re still consumers,” he says.
“Saudi Girls Revolution” is set in the late 21st century, where a world war over the loss of natural resources has wiped out three-quarters of Earth’s population. The one city untouched by war: Riyadh, rich with water. After the death of the king, unrest leads to brutal government camps for women.
Enter the eight heroines of “Saudi Girls Revolution.” Dressed in abayas—the full-length black robes worn by some Muslim women—they drive high-speed motorbikes equipped with magical shields and energy blasters, fighting villains and oppressors across treacherous landscapes.
These “Mu’tazilah,” a name with roots in Arabic and Islamic culture that means those who break away or stand apart, possess distinct personalities and backgrounds that loosely reflect various groups of Saudi Arabian society, according to the game’s creators. Um Bandar is the wise, elderly ringleader who teaches women to fight for themselves. Asma and Allanoud are twins who push against religious sectarianism. Hussa is gay; Leila is from the disconnected upper class of society. There is even an “ass-kicking” cyborg, Prince Fahad says. He likens their skills to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
A 35-second video on YouTube gives a taste of the game. In the teaser, the shadow of a woman stands beside a motorcycle, her hair and abaya blowing in the wind. Smoke rises amid debris and rain, as a red meteor falls from the sky. In the background, a woman sings: “From far away they came to life with knowledge. They changed our world then left us without warning.”
Choosing an alternate-universe version of Saudi Arabia for the game’s vehicular setting might seem pointed, considering women there are forbidden to drive. While no law explicitly prohibits them from getting behind the wheel, the government has refused to grant licenses to women.

A poster promoting the coming mobile videogame ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight evil.
A poster promoting the coming mobile videogame ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight evil.
Photo: NA3M
Dozens of Saudi women in recent years have protested the decadeslong ban by driving cars in the kingdom. Still, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry reaffirmed the ban last October, warning that strong measures would be taken against offenders. Earlier this year, two women were detained for more than 70 days for challenging the ban.
Prince Fahad says there is no political motive behind “Saudi Girls Revolution,” though he hopes it will “inspire women to see themselves in roles that are equal to men.” The website for NA3M says concepts like the one behind the game can “challenge convention.” (Mostly, though, it says it wants people to “enjoy a kick-ass game.”)
Prince Fahad, who lives in London, grew up playing foreign-made games with powerful female characters like Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider.” After graduating from Stanford University in 2007, he spent two years at Facebook Inc. working on an Arabic version of the social network.
He wanted to empower Saudi women by showing them—literally—in the driver’s seat. “If we can tell people stories about women driving, maybe they will, maybe it will actually happen,” he says.
Several characters, Prince Fahad says, are named after relatives, like his grandmother.
The inspiration for some villains, such as the game’s evil baboon kings, comes from plants and animals in Saudi Arabian cities. Take Ta’if, for example, where baboons there roam freely, coercing bananas, dates and other fruits from passersby. “If the baboons don’t get what they want, they jump on your car,” he says. “You have to pay the toll.”
It isn’t the first time Prince Fahad has drawn from real life for games. He says an earlier NA3M game, “Run Camel Run,” was inspired by his father, who collects hundreds of camels. Some compete in camel beauty pageants.
“My dad is very conservative,” the prince says, adding that his father wanted him to become an engineer. “He had reservations about me doing anything untraditional when it comes to working. But now he loves [“Run Camel Run”]. It’s his favorite game.”
“Saudi Girls Revolution” is slated for release on the Apple Inc. and Google Inc. app stores sometime later this year. It will be free to download and paired with a digital comic book that tells the back stories of the eight heroines.

An early rendering of a bike being considered for ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ which is still under development and slated for release later this year. Photo: NA3M
“I wanted to engage the Saudi community…to allow them to be comfortable and familiar and used to these types of visuals,” Prince Fahad says. He says he anticipates some backlash in Saudi Arabia over the driving theme, but not from his immediate family because he was raised by strong, independent women.
Videogames that touch on politics, religion and social issues aren’t new. The Sims allowed players to create gay characters since the first game in the life-simulation series was published in 2000. The annual Christian Game Developers Conference promotes games made “specifically to glorify God.” And in the 2014 mobile game “Kim Jong Jetpack,” players take on the role of the North Korean leader and try to save the world from an invasion of evil unicorn pigs, or “unipigs.”
But few, if any, videogames can boast developer credentials linked to royalty. “It makes a huge statement,” says Asi Burak, president of Games for Change, a nonprofit that focuses on inspiring social change through videogames. Prince Fahad spoke at the group’s New York gathering in April.
“You have someone [who’s] part of the establishment in a huge Arab country…starting a game company to deal with Arab culture and Arab themes,” Mr. Burak says. “It’s edgy.”
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Banned from driving, Saudi women turn to Uber and other ride-share apps

Article from the May 7, 2015 Los Angeles Times by Alexandra Zavis, who is reporting from Riyadh. The story is pasted below and a link to the story is here.

When Hala Radwan returned to Saudi Arabia after obtaining a business degree in France, she was eager to put her new skills to use.
She found a job in the marketing department of a big international company. There was just one problem: How would she get to and from work in the only country that does not allow women to drive?
The mass transit options are notoriously poor. The cost of hiring a chauffeur was prohibitive. And she didn’t want to deal with the negative comments she would face if she tried to hail a cab in the conservative kingdom, where a woman using public transportation on her own is often seen as lacking morals.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
Friends tipped her off to a solution: Uber and a regional competitor called Careem.
Smartphone-based ride services are becoming increasingly popular in Saudi Arabia’s major cities, especially among the large number of tech-savvy young people. Customers include foreign businessmen who don’t want to deal with the country’s sometimes chaotic taxi system. But more than 80% of individual users are women, the app companies say.
The apps have increased the mobility of and given a measure of independence to women who would otherwise have to rely on a male relative to ferry them around in the country which enforces a strict form of Islam. But with prices starting at about $5 a ride, even proponents concede it is not a solution for the poor.
Radwan, 29, spends nearly $700 a month on rides from Careem, with which she has a standing order to get to and from work.
The cost is slightly higher than for a taxi, but she finds the apps safer and more reliable. Both Uber and Careem use GPS technology to track their cars. With a few taps, she can see who will be driving her, the type of vehicle he uses and his customer ratings.
Better still, no one can tell she isn’t using a private car.
At least four ride-booking apps are available for download in Saudi Arabia, with more launches said to be in the works. The technology is the same as that used in the U.S. or Europe, but there are some notable differences in approach.
None of the companies work with drivers who use their personal cars to convey passengers at a fraction of the cost of a taxi or limousine service, a practice that has stirred conflict with transportation operators and regulators elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia, they say, they get their cars and drivers from licensed companies and charge comparable rates.
“We recognize that disruption is not the right model for this market,” said Careem’s founder, Mudassir Sheikha. “We’re trying to be good citizens and stay within the rules and offer a better quality of service.”
 His company, which is headquartered in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, was one of the first to enter the Saudi market in summer 2013. It now has nearly 100,000 users in the kingdom, a figure growing at about 40% per month, he said.
The service is available in five cities, including the capital, Riyadh, and the commercial hub of Jidda. Other options include the cab-hailing apps Easy Taxi and Mondo Taxi.
San Francisco-based Uber, which operates in more than 300 cities in 56 countries around the world, entered the fray a year ago. In that time, the number of users has increased twentyfold, one of the fastest growth rates in the Middle East or Europe, said Majed Abukhater, who serves as the company’s regional general manager.
“A lot of Saudis have used Uber globally and were really excited to see it launched here,” he said. Limo and car rental companies also like the arrangement because they are getting more business, he said.
Late last year, the transportation committee of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it was looking into the operations of several apps, which it accused of using drivers who were not authorized to carry customers in the kingdom – charges denied by Uber and Careem.
The companies say the response from government officials has been mostly positive. There were challenges getting started, however.
Many drivers needed training to provide the premium service touted by the apps. They weren’t used to opening doors for their passengers or helping them with luggage. Their cars weren’t well maintained, and punctuality was a problem.
“Drivers were not even wearing proper uniforms. They were wearing slippers,” Sheikha said. “So we ended up having to buy them uniforms. ... Then we had to start putting incentives in place for them to wear those uniforms.”
Although many Saudis own smartphones, credit card use is low. So Careem introduced a cash payment option. The company also operates a 24-hour call center, a reassuring feature for customers who may not be used to doing all their transactions online.
Customers say they appreciate the more professional and reliable service. There are few other transportation options, especially for women. Riyadh is building a metro system, but it is years from completion. Buses operate on limited routes and are mostly used by men.
“There are some [women] that take five to 10 trips with us every day,” Sheikha said. “We don’t see that kind of traffic anywhere.”
There is no law prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but there are fatwas, or religious edicts issued by conservative Muslim clerics. As a result, the government won’t grant women licenses.
The effective ban, which is not enforced in other Muslim countries, is a product of the rigid segregation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia. Concerns have been raised here that allowing women to drive could put them into contact with male traffic officers, or in the case of an accident, male medics. One cleric even suggested that driving could harm a woman’s ovaries, a suggestion ridiculed by many Saudis on social media.
Female activists who have defied the ban, posting images of themselves behind the wheel on social media, have in some cases been arrested. Two women who were detained at the border when one of them attempted to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia spent more than 70 days in custody before they were released in February.
Families with means will hire a chauffeur to take female members to work, to school, out shopping or to friends’ houses. But even that option has limitations.
“I have a driver, but sometimes he is too busy bringing my sisters from school,” said Gamar al-Douh, 24, who comes from a family of three girls with no brothers to help with the driving. “If I don’t have someone to take me, I use Uber.”
Radwan and her husband considered a chauffeur, but decided against it. The couple got married two years ago and are trying to save money to buy a house and raise a family.
Monthly salaries for a driver start around $400, but can be twice as high if the person is experienced and pays for his own accommodation.
Few Saudis are willing to do the work, so families typically face the additional expense of sponsoring a foreign driver for a work permit. Obtaining the visa and other documentation can cost between $4,000 and $7,000, Radwan said.
Even if the couple could afford a chauffeur, she doesn’t know where they would put him. They live in an apartment building in Jeddah that does not have rooms available for servants.
Her husband could give her a lift to work, but that would take him considerably out of his way.
Radwan used taxis while living abroad but avoids them in Saudi Arabia. Many cars are old and dirty, she said. In most cases, the meters don’t work, leaving passengers to haggle over the fare.
She and her friends used to be constantly swapping phone numbers for good drivers, but she said they weren’t always available.
“If you can’t find a driver, you have to wait for your husband. If not your husband, then your brother. And you know sometimes everyone is just so busy that going from point A to point B is really difficult,” she said. “You can’t even walk because [often] there’s no sidewalk, so you’re afraid of getting hit by a car.”
Now, the conversation with her friends has changed. If one of them needs a driver, they tell her, “Why don’t you take Uber or Careem?”
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