4 ways Uber impacts civil society in the Middle East

4 ways Uber impacts civil society in the Middle East
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Uber is helping communities address key social challenges left void by sclerotic government institutions.

Earlier this month, Uber announced plans to invest $250 million to expand its operations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), one of the fastest growing ride-sharing markets.

The company currently operates in nine countries in the region: Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. But the company over the next several years will begin services in more cities in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and enter Pakistan, starting with Lahore.

Uber’s operations in the Middle East have, in many ways, has a profoundly positive impact on civil society. Here are four ways Uber has impacted societal issues in the region:

Employment

Uber’s expansion into Middle Eastern cities has created hundreds of new jobs. In Cairo, one of the company’s fastest growing markets, the number of Uber drivers has grown sixfold since May 2015. According to the company’s regional director Jambu Palaniappan (pictured), about 40% of the company’s drivers in Egypt were previously unemployed.

Hiring local drivers is a low-cost and highly efficient system for the company. Most cities in the Middle East do not have street signs or addresses on buildings, so by hiring local talent the company eliminates the need to train new drivers on how to navigate complicated urban areas.

Uber has also partnered with fully licensed limousine companies in many Middle East cities, which also include tourism firms that comply with local regulations. As unemployment remains a key challenge in most Middle Eastern countries, Uber’s ability to drawn on local talent is a positive investment.

Efficiency

Traffic in the Middle East is some of the worst in the world. Roads in Cairo, Beirut, and Amman are cramped, windy and oftentimes do not have sidewalks, so pedestrians tend to clog the streets.

In Egypt, according to the World Bank, traffic volume ranges from 3,000 to 7,000 vehicles an hour per lane on major corridors with local streets totaling 1,000 to 4,000 vehicles an hour per lane.

To address this problem, next month Uber is launching UberPool, a system that allows several riders to share a car to the same destination. By encouraging riders to share rides, the company hopes to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads.

Additionally, using Uber saves the rider the hassle of having to bargain with regular taxi drivers over how much each ride will cost, as some taxi systems do not have meters. The regularity of pricing and the ability to pay by credit card or by cash makes Uber an attractive system.

Women

One of the key’s to Uber’s success is its ability to encourage social mobility, and is having a profound effect on how women in the Middle East are able to get around their home cities. Moreover, Uber is not alone, as the IT business and tech sectors in general are aiding women in MENA.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, 70-90% of Uber users are women. Women are not legally allowed to drive in the country and it is often difficult for them to get to university, stores, or the airport. To overcome this challenge, women sometimes rely on private drivers which can be expensive. Uber offers a much cheaper, efficient way for women in the country to travel, especially for the ones who cannot afford to hire a private driver.

Another major concern for single women using Uber is the threat of sexual harassment. Harassment is a major problem in Egypt, where almost 90% of women experience some form of sexual harassment, sometimes physical.

To address this challenge, Uber in Egypt is working with HarassMap, an Egyptian service that tracks such incidents; in order to train drivers in Cairo about sexual harassment. The company is also stepping up background checks on its drivers to ensure safety for female riders.

Civil Society

Uber is also having an impact on civil society, helping communities address societal issues left void by inept government institutions.

For example, when trash started piling up on the streets of Beirut, Lebanon in July this summer, Uber launched #UberRecycle where people could call an Uber to come take out their trash.

Beirut residents could pick a “recycle option” on their app, summoning one of four vans to pick up their trash. The garbage then would get passed on to arcenciel, a secular development and preservation organization, for recycling, with the entire process being free.

Uber’s initiative in Lebanon demonstrates how private technology companies can tackle civil society issues often more efficiently and faster than government institutions in corrupt nations.

Uber’s marketing manager Eliana Bou Melhem says the #UberRecycle initiative was very successful: “As a technology company, we can turn things around very quickly… Reaction’s been great, everyone sees a real need for this and we are happy to be doing our part.”

Remaining Challenges

Though Uber has had a positive impact on societies in the region, several challenges still remain as the company begins expanding operations.

Uber is controversial, especially for local taxi drivers who see the company as a direct threat to their businesses. Though regular taxis are still used in abundance, some private driving companies could be pushed out of the market as Uber becomes more popular.

Likewise, most economies in the Middle East are cash based and Uber’s credit card payment system that is highly popular in Western countries may deter riders from using Uber. To address this, the company is working to allow riders to have the option to pay with cash or credit.

Finally, though Uber is teaming up with local initiatives to combat sexual harassment, there is no guarantee for women in places like Egypt and Pakistan to be entirely protected from harassment if they are to take Uber alone. Stronger background checks and harsher measures against drivers who commit such crimes may future prevent these instances.

About Author

Madeleine Moreau

Madeleine Moreau is the GRI Senior Commissioning Editor and a Senior Analyst currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. She specializes in investment risk and opportunity in the Middle East and has previously lived in Jordan and Morocco. Her work and insight have appeared in several leading publications, including Business Insider, TechCrunch, Oilprice.com, The Atlantic Council, Yahoo News and OZY. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic from Middlebury College.