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The Uberization of Human Rights

Adel Raslan

In a time when real and impactful technological advances are few and far between, it's no surprise that global taxi app Uber has had a profound impact on all aspects of society. In fact, not a week goes by without someone, whether in the office, the street or in the media, mentioning the brand in some shape or form. For example, it is regularly referenced positively to illustrate the recent disruption, the 'uberization', of traditional industries (e.g. banking or health), and praised for the increased level of convenience that it has brought to people's daily lives with the offer of a more cost-effective and reliable mode of transport.

However, Uber is equally subject to negative coverage, with weekly news stories and social media providing a platform for taxi drivers to voice their grievances around Uber's saturation of the market and lower fares, thereby undermining their ability to attract customers and maintain their businesses. Governments and regulators around the world have also expressed their concerns and have attempted to take Uber to court on the grounds that it is an unofficial and unregulated service, due to the fact the company sits in the regulatory grey area between a chauffeur service and tech company.

This ability to get people talking and drum up attention continued last week following the announcement that it had received a cash investment of almost $3.5 billion from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) – the largest single investment ever made in a private company. At a time when funding and investment in tech companies has slowed down amid concerns that many start-ups have been overvalued, Uber's latest round of funding, boosts its value to an estimated $61 billion, should be seen as a win-win situation for all involved. The new funds will facilitate Uber's expansion into new territories and supports the Saudi government's ‘Vision 2030’, which aims to diversify the country's investments and make it less reliant on its oil revenues.

The Saudi government's decision to invest in Uber will likely prove to be successful and result in positive economic and financial outcomes in the long term. However, the new partnership has already had a social impact and has led to the reopening of one of the country's most contentious issues – the ban on women driving. Some of the most conservative sectors of Saudi Arabians society hold the view that women should not be allowed to leave the house, let alone drive, without the presence of a mahram (male guardian such as a father, brother or uncle) – except with a driver, which is in itself somewhat contradictory – on the basis that 'freedom of movement for women would make them vulnerable to sins' and that female drivers would 'undermine social values.'

While I appreciate that this partnership could be considered a step backwards and institutionalizes the problem, I would like to think that this is the latest step towards achieving a more progressive society. In recent years, the highly influential Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has publicly endorsed women’s right to drive and there has been a significant increase in the number popular movements, such as the "Women2Drive" campaign in 2011 that encouraged women to disregard the laws and post images and videos of themselves driving to raise awareness of the issue and drive change in the law.

The extent to which this is a step in the right direction is illustrated by the fact that an estimated 80 percent of all Uber passengers in Saudi Arabia are women. This is particularly significant as only a small percentage of the population can afford to hire a driver and, having visited Saudi myself, I can attest that public transport is relatively unreliable and unsafe. This provision could therefore be seen as an immediate and practical ‘work-around’ that overcomes logistical hurdles and facilitates their movement. For example, Uber will allow those unable to afford a driver or have a male chaperon available at all times to carry out important tasks, such as taking a family member to the hospital or enabling young eligible women to attend university, get a good education and, ultimately, get a good job. This will not only benefit the women themselves and their immediate families, but will increase the overall education and economic prosperity of the country, which will, in turn, lead to more social change. Therefore, the growth of Uber should not be used to plaster over the cracks and flaws in Saudi Arabia, but used as a stepping stone for further development in the fight for gender equality and human rights.

No matter what you think about Uber, its policies and partnerships, we can all agree that the company is here to stay and is likely to continue going from strength to strength. While I'm also sure that Uber would prefer to receive only positive coverage, I think the cliché phrase, 'no publicity is bad publicity,' applies strongly to the company given its ability to remain a relevant part of our daily lives despite an overwhelming number of obstacles.

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