Uber just received its largest ever investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. It is, in fact, the largest “single investment ever made in a private company.”
While the taxi-hailing app is now valued at $62.5 billion, the money will also help the service expand in Saudi Arabia, where 80% of its users are women.
On the surface of it, it looks like a win-win situation for all parties involved. But it isn’t.
By agreeing to such a massive fund, Uber is, inadvertently, facilitating an unjust ban on Saudi women that prevents them from driving on their own in the country.
Women in Saudi Arabia need a male guardian or a chauffeur to do that. It’s absurd considering how there are no traffic laws that make it illegal for women to drive in the country. It’s just the ultraconservative religious edicts against female drivers that have constituted the status of a ban somehow.
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On the other hand, Saudi women have started joining the workforce in historic numbers. Female employment in the Gulf kingdom has increased by 48 percent since 2010 – more than double the rate for men.
Of course, these working women need a means of getting to their workplaces. Since they can’t drive, they rely on public transportation and ride-share apps like Uber.
Even though Saudi Arabia has recently introduced several sweeping financial and social reforms in the wake of economic decline, Riyadh is still reluctant to let women drive.
When rumors emerged about Saudi Arabia mulling revoking the ban in April, the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, quickly said the Saudi community wasn’t ready for women drivers.
Meanwhile, Saudi women have frequently protested against the ban, despite the risk of getting arrested. They recently demanded the government provide them with “special discounted transportation” or grant give them the freedom to drive.
Judging by the (insane) amount that Saudi Arabia has just invested in Uber, it seems the country prefers the former option.
"We appreciate the vote of confidence in our business as we continue to expand our global presence," said Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, of the Saudi investment. "Our experience in Saudi Arabia is a great example of how Uber can benefit riders, drivers and cities and we look forward to partnering to support their economic and social reforms."
Perhaps Uber should take a closer look at the “social reforms” it’s supporting.