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Saudi Arabia: Uber scores $3.5 Bn cash infusion with surprise deal

Riyadh: The Saudi state’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is ready for $3.5 billion with Uber. The largest investment in Uber to date. The move has dropped jaws o many, however, due to one of the kingdom’s domestic policies: Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women cannot legally drive.

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’s more complicated, however, is the role that Uber already plays in Saudi Arabia’s gender politics. While the country’s drivers are almost certainly entirely male, Uber’s own figures show their Saudi passengers are more than 80 percent female. For many women in the country, the app and its competitors offer a chance at greater autonomy. Public transportation in Saudi Arabia is largely poor, and it can be difficult to find a regular taxi at times. Many families can’t afford to hire a driver to take women places on their own.

The end result is that if you are a Saudi woman and you want to commute to work or run errands on your own, a ride-sharing app can become an important tool. “There are some [women] that take five to 10 trips with us every day,” Mudassir Sheikha, the founder of local Uber rival Careem told the Los Angeles Times last year. “We don’t see that kind of traffic anywhere.”

In December the company offered free Uber rides to Saudi women during the first election in which they were legally allowed to vote. “Of course we think women should be allowed to drive,” Jill Hazelbaker, an Uber spokeswoman, told the New York Times this week. “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.” It’s expected now that the Saudi investment in Uber should end lingering questions about the legality of the service in the country.

Members of the Saudi royal family have repeatedly suggested that they believe women should be able to drive Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful voice in the country, recently suggested that “women don’t get their complete rights granted them by Islam.”

Female citizens are being encouraged to enter the workforce, with Mohammed stating the aim was to increase their participation from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030. Such moves may soon put the ruling Saudi royals at odds with the country’s religious elite, potentially shattering a partnership that has provided relative stability to the country for decades.

The investment in Uber seems to be a sign that the Saudi state is willing to bet big on the country’s economic future.

Although predicting about how those economic bets will translate is socially hard to predict.