For those who have been under a rock since Uber arrived in the UAE in 2013, it works like this. You download the Uber app to your smartphone, register your credit card details (Uber is trialling cash payments), enter your destination and, presto, thanks to the magic of GPS, a car finds you. No heat, no hassle, no sweat.
But while the consequences of the Uber revolution for individual users might be fairly obvious, calculating the impact on wider society is not so easy.
Uber was founded in March 2009 by serial tech entrepreneurs Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick. The app was released the following year and, to cut a short story even shorter, both men are now worth about US$6 billion (Dh22.03bn) each.
Operations began in San Francisco, where the model that would be rolled out across most of the world was developed. Today, you can even book a driverless car in Pittsburgh in the United States.
“We are a technology company, not a transport company,” an Uber spokesperson told The National. “We do not own cars or employ drivers.” Instead, its app acts as a go-between, signing up and connecting drivers and riders and handling the financial transactions between them, and Uber makes its money by taking a slice of the action.
And those slices worldwide add up to an awful lot of money. In December, when Uber embarked on a new round of finance-raising, seeking $2.1bn to fund ambitious expansion plans, the company was valued at $62.6bn.
As of last week, Uber is available in 74 countries and about 500 cities. Until this week, these included both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the first cities in the Middle East to join the Uber party, where the app went live in September and December 2013.
The region was one of Uber’s fastest-growing, and the company, said a spokesperson, had “committed to investing $250 million in the region”. Last month, Uber and the other private taxi service in the UAE, Careem, said they were open to providing more affordable taxi-sharing services if government regulations were to allow it.
Since launching in the UAE, Uber is now available in nine countries and 15 cities in the region, including Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Manama and Doha. Business is especially brisk in Saudi Arabia, where on June 1 the Public Investment Fund announced it was investing $3.5bn in the company.
Around the world, Uber isn’t the only company doing what it does, but with vast funding at its disposal it regularly steamrollers local competition to become the only ride in town. When Uber cut its fares in Abu Dhabi in April, Careem did not follow suit. Though generally cagey about its vital statistics, a local Uber spokesperson says, “we are confident we are the leading app in the region. In this last week alone [July 24 to July 30], our app was downloaded three times more than our competitor.”
In the West, Uber has faced multiple protests and legal actions from licensed taxi drivers and other entrenched interests, including entire cities, almost all of which it has overcome (apart from in China where it has merged with once arch-rival Didi after burning through $2bn trying to see it off). There have also been protests by customers outraged by Uber’s “surge” pricing, which sees fares rocket at times of high demand.
Uber has never pretended to be a social enterprise. Elsewhere in the Middle East, however, it could be argued that, as needs must, it is becoming an instrument of social change in its bid for global domination.
In October last year, Uber teamed up in Egypt with HarassMap, an initiative that tracks reports of sexual harassment in the country, to improve driver screening and make driver education and training to prevent sexual harassment mandatory, pledging to take a lead in corporate prevention. A similar initiative is under way in Pakistan.
But perhaps the most seismic social shock is being felt in Saudi Arabia, where, reflecting the ban on women driving, 80 per cent of Uber’s customers are women. The kingdom’s recent investment – as Uber’s largest single investor, the government now has a seat on the company’s board alongside Camp and Kalanick – has been simultaneously hailed as a significant move towards women’s liberation and condemned as a tool for the obverse.
“They’re investing in our pain, in our suffering,” Hatoon Al Fassi, an historian at Qatar University, told Bloomberg when the deal was announced in June. “This institutionalises women’s inferiority and dependency.”
In a blog, Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned television network Al Arabiya English, wrote: “Nobody should view the Uber investment as a way to enforce the driving-ban.”
On the contrary, he added, it was a “pratical ‘work-around’ that actually empowers women and facilitates their movement and productivity … Have those who called for the boycott thought that they may be stopping a mother from taking a crying child to the hospital? Did they think that they could be preventing a … female graduate from getting a job?”
A clue to where the women-driving debate might be going in Saudi Arabia was, perhaps, to be found in Uber’s frank response. “Of course we think women should be allowed to drive,” Jill Hazelbaker, an Uber spokeswoman, told The New York Times. But “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”.
One way or another, Uber is changing the way people go places. Is it pricey? Sure. Is it just a status symbol? Maybe. Is it worth it? Try standing in the harsh midday sun in Abu Dhabi in July, waiting for a taxi that never comes, before you answer that.
Jonathan Gornall is a freelance journalist based in London.
Source: art & life