The deal between the only country in the world that bans female drivers and Silicon Valleys ride-sharing company Uber Technologies Inc. may be as unusual as it is convenient. Whats sure is that its caused outrage among many Saudi women.
They are angry that Ubers new $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabias sovereign wealth fund not only means the government directly profits from the ban, but also it effectively in their view endorses the countrys no-women-behind-the-wheel policy. The investment is part of the ultra-conservative Gulf countrys steps toward making money from things other than oil.
But it raised hackles on social media, where the hashtag ___# (Saudi women announce Uber boycott) gained traction, and 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.
“Theyre investing in our pain, in our suffering,” Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi womens historian who teaches at Qatar University, said in an interview from Doha. “This institutionalizes womens 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 Funds 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 didnt exist before and were 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.
Support for the women also came from some men, including Maan Al-Sharif, a 20-year-old Saudi in Khobar:
One woman spoke about the difficulty in getting around, and then lashed out at Uber.
Others did the same:
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 cant be any of those if theyre under the mercy of a guardian and the mercy of a driver.”
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This article originally published at Bloomberg here