Uber sees 2016 Saudi growth surge as women need rides

Uber Technologies is planning an even bigger wave of new customers this year in Saudi Arabia, where the app’s popularity among women has created one of its fastest-growing markets.

The ride-sharing service is aiming for growth of 50 percent to 60 percent in trips per month in 2016, versus estimated gains of 25 percent to 40 percent last year, said Majed Abukhater, head of Saudi operations. Meanwhile, talks with regulators have been "extremely positive" compared to Uber’s experience in other countries, and have focused on familiarizing potential opponents with how the app works, Abukhater said.

Uber has faced opposition in virtually every country it entered. In Saudi Arabia, it’s trying to create a “new regulatory space” for an industry that can offer alternative transport options for women, who can’t drive in the kingdom but have an increasing role in the economy, Aboukhater said. Saudi Arabia has cut domestic spending with the price of oil, the kingdom’s main revenue source, at about a 12-year low.

"Women can’t keep their jobs in Saudi Arabia because they have trouble finding reliable transportation to get to work, so how can we help," Aboukhater said in an interview at Uber’s Dubai office. "I’m not worried about the future, because of the discussions I’ve been having. It leaves us in a place where we can work very closely with regulators to set up an industry."

Still, some Saudi municipal and business-lobby leaders have said services such as Uber and regional competitor Careemare illegal or, at the very least, need closer oversight.

The San Francisco-based company is investing $250 million to expand in the Middle East and North Africa and has operated in Saudi Arabia for about two years. Women account for more than 70 percent of Uber’s customers in the country.

The service operates in the Muslim holy cities of Makkah and Madinah; the capital, Riyadh; and the port cities of Jeddah and Dammam. New locations targeted for service include the industrial centers Jubail and Yanbu and the north-central municipalities of Qasim and Ha’il, Abukhater said.

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