Controversy Surrounds Uber’s Ties to Saudi Arabia

Jul 20th, 2016 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

Last month Uber announced the company’s latest investor- Saudi Arabia. Through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Uber received its largest investment fund from a single investor, which totaled $3.5 billion. This investment is part of the company’s plan to further expand into areas in the Middle East, where Uber plans to invest $250 million. One of the biggest controversies behind the investment is Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. While there is technically no law that prohibits women to drive in Saudi Arabia, the powerful influence of conservative Muslim clerics upholds strict gender segregation.saudi-driving_2747527b

Protests on Twitter broke out shortly after the deal was announced, with the hashtag “Saudi women announce Uber boycott.” Many women voiced their frustrations, stating that Uber was treating Saudi women like “cash cows” and were profiting from women’s lack of rights in the country. Uber spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, commented on the controversy saying “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.” However, Uber has made no public statement announcing whether the company planned to hire female drivers.

According to the Washington Post: “Uber, of course, does not deliberately restrict female drivers. At the end of 2015, the company said that only 19 percent of the drivers using the app were women but that it was actively trying to increase that percentage. The Saudi government will now be given a direct say in Uber’s decision making process — PIF was given a seat on the board as part of the deal — but a representative of Uber said that the investment would definitely not limit women drivers on the app in the United States or other countries where women are allowed to drive.”

What complicates the issue, is that Uber already plays a major role in gender roles in the country. While 80% of Uber’s passengers in Saudi Arabia are female, the drivers are males. Male Uber drivers and female riders causes problems because according to Islamic traditions, women aren’t allowed to be alone with an unfamiliar male. While members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia have spoken out in support of women gaining the right to drive, there is major backlash coming from power religious communities in the country.

Despite the doubt shadowing the deal, people are speaking out in support of Uber’s decision, hopeful that it will bring social change to a country in need of it. Kellie McElhaney, a Professor at Berkeley-Haas School of Business, believes this is an “opportunity for the company to influence and accelerate social development” and that “giving women this flexibility and mobility is going to be on the path to give women more freedom.” While Uber has the ability to offer women more mobility, this is only a feasible option for women who can afford, especially if women are using the service multiple times in one day.

Saudi activist and writer Hala al-Dosari told Fast Company that the problem lies in the fact that both Uber and the Saudi government are directly profiting on a woman’s restriction to drive and believes women shouldn’t be “obliged to use that service.” al-Dosari points out “They are so eager to have an investment in their own company, even if it means doing deals with people who are violating the basic principle of equity and fairness.”

While this deal does have the potential to bring about social change in Saudi Arabia, this will only happen if Uber uses their close relationship with the Saudi government to continue and strengthen the conversation about these social issues.

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