A massive $3.5 billion investment in Uber from Saudi Arabia shocked the tech world on Wednesday but has left women inside the country skeptical about any huge boon for them.
Hassah Al-Qabisy, 44, works as a security guard at a hospital in Riyadh and believes that "Uber is a business like any other business." But will it overturn the country's unofficial ban on women driving? Unlikely.
"Most of the clients will be ladies," she continued, a feeling that Uber's own stats bear out: Eighty percent of its customers in Saudi Arabia are women, the company claims. "We as women can't drive. If you know that we have been fighting for years to drive our own cars — and the state doesn't allow that — what makes you think that Uber will change anything?"
The ride-hailing company has had a presence in the Gulf kingdom since 2014. Back in March, former Obama adviser and current Uber board member David Plouffe lent his name to a tweet from the company's Saudi Twitter account:
The glaring issue with the tweet was that the government doesn't actually want to make it easier for all people to get around however they want. In late December 2014, for example, two women who protested the driving ban by violating it were arrested and sent to trial in a court established to try suspected terrorists. With that in mind, the majority of women activists who spoke to BuzzFeed News saw the rise of foreign companies and technology in Saudi Arabia as inevitable — but not world-changing.
"Uber is like satellites, or mobile phones, or even Twitter," said Gharam, a 17-year-old student in Riyadh who called them "Western tools that Saudi Arabia can't prevent. But it will never change the culture — never make real change. So yes we will have Uber, but we can't drive them."
For its part Uber puts on a public face of support for Saudi women. “Of course we think women should be allowed to drive,” said Jill Hazelbaker, an Uber spokeswoman told the New York Times. “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.”
The economic upsides of Uber's proliferation isn't lost on these women, but the country's diversification from oil and the savings the company's service provides aren't exactly what they're after. "Uber is great project for sure," Rana, who works in technical support for a communications company, told BuzzFeed News. "Here we pay all a lot to get foreign drivers and I think in the current economic problem we need to save that money — but that has nothing to do with the fight to drive."
"What prevents us from driving isn't the cost of the car or the taxi," Rana said. "We are facing the religious men. Uber isn't stronger than religious men here."
Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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