Friday, February 28, 2014

Saudi women welcome taxi app Uber

Story by Lisa De Bode in AlJazeera America. You can link to the story here - and it's pasted in below. 

February 27, 2014
4:16PM ET

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.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

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

From Slate Magazine. A link to the story is here, and the text is below.

By Ariel Bogle

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.”

Future Tense
 is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ariel Bogle is a researcher for Future Tense.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Concept for Future Saudi Taxi Drivers?

Found this photograph on Pinterest, it is of the female taxi drivers in Dubai who only drive women passengers. Maybe this idea could work in Saudi Arabia someday.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Azizah Al Yousef, Saudi Female Driving Activist, named Number One Most Powerful Arab

Aziza Al Yousef, an activist working to end the female driving ban in Saudi Arabia, has been named to the top of the list of Gulf Business Magazine's list of the World's 100 Most Powerful Arabs in their February 2014 issue. Here is what they wrote about her. The magazine is available on newsstands in the Gulf region.

Al-Yousef is a well-known advocate of the struggle to end the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. The computer science university lecturer has driven numerous times and was arrested for doing so in November 2013. Her next step is to try to reach ruler King Abdullah with a letter featuring thousands of signatures in support of ending the ban.

Congratulations to Ms. Al Yousef.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Driver Diaries From the Kingdom

We just learned of a wordpress blog entitled "Driver Diaries From the Kingdom" (you can link to the blog here).

This blog is written by women who are living in Saudi Arabia dealing with the issue of drivers and of course, women driving.

If you are keeping up-to-date on the issue, we recommend you follow that blog.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Saudi women urge top cleric to end driving ban

Feb 4, 2014 - This article appeared on Gulf 24/7's website. A link to the story is here, and the story is pasted below. 

Saudi female activists have appealed for the Gulf Kingdom’s top Islamic cleric to push for ending a long-standing ban on women’s car driving, saying the benefits of such a law surpass its disadvantages, a newspaper reported on Tuesday.

The London-based Saudi Arabic language daily Al Hayat said the women made the appeal in a letter signed by several female activists and addressed to the country’s Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh.

It said the women told the Mufti they have decided to send this letter after they were advised by male supporters to resort to official channels instead of staging random driving campaigns on roads and clashing with police.

“We appeal for you to reconsider the laws which ban women from driving cars…we decided to resort to you after we found that the benefits of driving a car exceed the disadvantages….otherwise, why there is no law banning women from using mobile phones and internet….we tell those who prohibit female driving that they should also prohibit all other means of technology….those who permit women to use such means should also permit them to drive cars,” the letter said.