Saudi Arabia made international headlines earlier this month when it invested $3.5 billion in the ride-hailing app Uber. Just as conspicuous as the whopping all-cash infusion was the fact that it was coming from the only nation in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive a car. When Uber launched its service in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the occasion marked a new way for women to go mobile without reliance on a husband or other man — and a revenue windfall for Uber. But some see the government’s investment in Uber as an all-too-shrewd move aimed at reaping profits from preventing women from getting behind the wheel and driving themselves. “We should not be obliged to use that service,” Saudi activist and writer Hala al-Dosari told Fast Company in an interview.
Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, sees the investment almost as a way to keep women there oppressed. “They’re happy to fund a company that is going to ferry around the women of Saudi Arabia, but they’re not going to allow women who may not be able to hire their own cars, who may be able to carpool among themselves, to do so,” Begum said. Many women in Saudi Arabia are, not surprisingly, unhappy with the government. But the attitudes toward Uber, the company that’s introduced some change there, and has positioned itself as a champion of women, well, that’s a little more complicated.