What It’s Like to Be the Uber of the Middle East

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Careem, the region’s ride-hailing leader, is counting on loosened laws to raise its appeal.

By Adam Popescu

Careem Networks FZ LLC, a five-year-old ride-hailing company based in Dubai, operates in 80 cities across 13 countries from North Africa to Pakistan and leads the field in most of them. The company has done best in countries with scant public transport options where large swaths of the population can’t or don’t drive. Its biggest market is Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t yet allowed behind the wheel but are permitted to ride unaccompanied in cabs with male drivers.

Those cabs can be pricey and aren’t always safe—two reasons, Careem says, why 4 in 5 Saudi women have used its service. One of the company’s principal goals is “to provide a safe, worry-free ride for women, especially in Saudi Arabia,” says Chief Executive Officer Mudassir Sheikha. Now, as the kingdom prepares to loosen its social strictures, Sheikha is betting that women’s increased freedoms will make Careem more appealing, not less.

Saudi Arabia expects to issue its first driver’s licenses to women in June, part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pledge to modernize the country and wean its economy off oil. Although the text of the law isn’t yet public, the government has suggested that women will probably be able to drive alone and also professionally. (Women may still need a male guardian’s permission to get a license.) Careem, along with Uber Technologies Inc., a minor player in the market, is recruiting and training women to act as on-demand chauffeurs. The company says it expects to have more than 10,000 women driving for its car network by the time the law takes effect and that it hopes they’ll make other women feel more comfortable taking a ride.

Careem’s value as of June: $1.2 billion

Saudi Arabia isn’t poised to become a feminist utopia any time soon, but employment is a growing priority in the country of 32 million, where a third of the adult population is jobless and many college-educated women aren’t allowed to work. Prince Mohammed has said he aims to add 450,000 private-sector jobs by 2030.

As oil prices dipped, Saudi investors poured money into ride-hailing companies, including $250 million into Lyft Inc. in 2015 and $3.5 billion into Uber in 2016, but neither has much presence on Careem’s turf. Careem was valued at $1.2 billion last June, when it closed a $500 million funding round led by Saudi conglomerate Kingdom Holding Co. and the German automaker Daimler AG.

Careem has employed women drivers in Pakistan, where 70 percent of its riders are female, for a little more than a year and has added women to its ranks in Egypt and Jordan, too. In Pakistan’s larger cities, the company has experimented with sending, say, doctors or other service providers to users’ homes. It also surprised riders by putting the marriage matchmakers known as rishta aunties in their cars with them. (The latter stunt generated some criticism from women annoyed that Careem seemed to be pushing them toward more conservative social norms.) Sibtain Naqvi, Careem Pakistan’s head of public affairs, says the company is preparing more on-demand services for Valentine’s Day.

 

 

This kind of push and pull between traditions and new opportunities exemplifies Careem’s complicated appeal for Middle Eastern women, says Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif. The company is a valuable emergency option, but it’s too expensive for most women to use routinely, says al-Sharif, who wrote the book Daring to Drive about her repeated arrests for distributing videos of herself behind the wheel. (She now lives in Australia.) “Careem does not solve the problem of continuous transportation,” she says.

Careem’s Sheikha, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant with computer science degrees from the University of Southern California and Stanford, says he favors women driving professionally, but he wouldn’t say whether he lobbied for the move in Riyadh. “We will welcome them as captains like we have done in Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan,” he says. “It is aligned with our mission.”

In Egypt, where Uber is a bigger challenge to Careem, the legislature has been weighing whether to require ride-sharing services to place servers with Egyptian user data inside the country, a move that would render the data subject to surveillance. Careem declined to comment on whether it would choose to do so or leave the country. In Saudi Arabia, there’s another reason for Careem to tread lightly: Kingdom Holding’s roughly 10 percent stake in the company was made under Prince Alwaleed bin Talal before he was swept up in November’s mass arrests for alleged corruption. (Saudi authorities released Alwaleed on Jan. 27, saying he’d reached an undisclosed settlement with the government allowing him to remain chairman of Kingdom Holding.)

Change is coming, as al-Sharif says, and on-demand transportation will help bring it, but it’s not yet clear what that will look like. “It’s changing for economic reasons,” she says. “The government needs women to be in the workforce today.” In that sense, she says, it’s Careem that’s just along for the ride.

 

BOTTOM LINE – Careem has proven a valuable option for women in countries where they can’t drive, but it isn’t pushing overtly for reforms that local governments oppose.

 

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