Uber is helping Saudi Arabia drive its cultural transformation

Uber has about 95,000 monthly active drivers in Saudi Arabia. And right now, only one is a woman.

But that’s about to change. Uber (as well as Middle East ride-hailing rival Careem) is launching programs aimed at leveraging the sweeping cultural and economic changes afoot in the country.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman lifted the country’s ban on women driving. It’s one of many changes spearheaded by the kingdom’s heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has encouraged reforms in Saudi Arabia in an effort to diversify the country’s economy.

Uber has spent months preparing for this moment, conducting research on the country’s demographics and developing an approach that will add to its driver ranks without veering too far from cultural norms there.

Uber says it will pilot a new feature this fall that will let women drivers in Saudi Arabia select a preference to be connected to female riders.

The pilot feature won’t guarantee that the female driver will get a female rider. But a look at Uber’s ridership numbers in the country and it’s clear the demographics favor a female driver to female rider matchup. Uber has about 1.33 million quarterly active riders in Saudi Arabia, and 80 percent of those riders are women.

Uber says market research conducted in collaboration with Ipsos helped it understand (and ultimately take advantage of) the opportunity.

The research found 31 percent of Saudi women surveyed were interested in driving as a way to earn money. The company has also discovered that 74 percent of prospective women drivers interviewed would only be interested in driving women riders.

Uber has made other changes to its operations in Saudi Arabia in an effort to attract and retrain this new batch of drivers. In March, Uber announced Masaruky — which means “your path” in Arabic — a two-year initiative that aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce through access to affordable transportation.

Uber kicked off the campaign with a pledge of SAR 1 million ($266,620) and a partnership with the Al Nahda Society to financially support women interested in obtaining a driver license. Earlier this month, Uber rolled out a registration portal called Masaruky for Saudi women interested in driving on Uber. A company spokeswoman for Uber’s Middle East operations said more than 100 Saudi women have signed up so far, expressing interest in becoming drivers.

The company also recently finished a support center for female drivers in Riyadh.

Meanwhile, Careem has received more than 2,000 applications since announcing it would recruit female drivers in Saudi Arabia. The company has a goal of hiring 20,000 Captinahs (its term for female drivers) across the Middle East by 2020.

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