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As Uber prepares to roll out innovative tech ranging from flying taxis to driverless cars, Tino 'Abdellatif' Waked, the company's MENA director, explains what his team is doing to further disrupt transportation in the Middle East.

Uber ready for take-off in the Middle East

Waked says Uber wants to be a core driver of growth in the Middle East

As is the case for most self-proclaimed disruptors, Uber has ruffled more than its fair share of feathers during its short existence. The firm, which only celebrated its 9th birthday in March, has faced tough questions from a variety of sectors, ranging from traditional taxi operators and environmental groups to its own drivers and customers – and many others in between.

One accusation that few could level at the company, however, is that it is too risk averse. On the contrary, the firm has cemented itself as a household name through a series of high-risk, high-reward moves. As a result, the impact that Uber has achieved since its formation is the stuff that start-up dreams are made of.

In the space of less than a decade Uber is estimated to have secured more than two-thirds of the US market for passenger transport and approximately a quarter of the country’s food delivery segment. At the last count it was believed to have in the region of 100 million worldwide users – roughly twice the population of the GCC.

Redefining transport

One of the few truly global disruptors, the California-headquartered transportation network company (TNC) has already made significant headway in reshaping the way people and goods move around the Middle East – a market that Tino ‘Abdellatif’ Waked, the firm’s MENA director and general manager, describes as “one of the fastest growing regions for Uber globally”.

The Middle East is one of the fastest-growing regions for Uber globally

“I think the best way to look at the situation is that we want to transform the Middle East; to make sure that we provide the best way for people and things to move as seamlessly as possible,” Waked tells Arabian Business. “When you look at multi-modal forms of transportation and the impact Uber is having on work opportunities in this region, I think it’s extremely exciting.”

On the face of it, this may seem like a run-of-the-mill comment from an international corporation, but unpack Waked’s quote – specifically his reference to ‘multi-modal forms of transportation’ – and you soon find yourself in uncharted territory.

In June 2019, Uber held its third annual Elevate Summit in Washington, DC and it would be fair to say that ride-hailing technology – the bread and butter of the firm’s current operations – was not high on the agenda. When the subject was raised, it tended to be in relation to other more ‘futuristic’ applications.

During the two-day summit, Uber announced plans to conduct flight demonstrations of its electric vehicle take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft in 2020, with a view to making Uber Air commercially available to passengers in 2023. Dallas-Fort Worth/Frisco and Los Angeles will offer US testbeds for the aerial ride sharing service, while Melbourne saw off stiff competition to be named the first overseas city to welcome Uber Air.

While no concrete implementation date was given for the self-driving vehicles being developed by Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), the division’s head said that his team planned to beat their Uber Air colleagues to the punch by introducing driverless cars to customers before 2023. The conference also saw a host of announcements from Uber jorda, which oversees the development and implementation of urban mobility devices such as electric bicycles and scooters.

So far so impressive, but the company has no definite plans to bring either flying taxis or driverless cars to the Gulf, and although Uber JUMP devices are already available across 17 major cities around the world, users are still awaiting their rollout in the MENA region.

“We want to transform the Middle East; to make sure that we provide the best way for people and things to move as seamlessly as possible”

So, when can Uber users in the Middle East expect to take advantage of these technologies? “Flying taxis are definitely part of our long-term plan for the Middle East,” says Waked, commenting on Uber’s eVTOL aircraft. “We’re trying to build something at Uber that we can give to the entire world, and, in places like the UAE, this technology represents a very good fit. However, it’s not something we’re looking to introduce in the immediate future.

“Our goal is to offer customers the right level of access through a variety of transport solutions, and we also need to ensure that eVTOL technology is more convenient and cost-effective [than our existing modes of transport] before introducing it to the Middle East. We’re interested in taking customers from one point to another as efficiently as possible, and flying taxis are just one part of that.”

The MENA region is similarly placed when it comes to driverless cars and Uber JUMP devices, according to Waked. He continues: “ATG is looking at transforming the way the world moves. I don’t currently have a timeline for when our self-driving technologies will come to the Middle East; I think the timelines are still up in the air.

“Uber JUMP devices are already available in some European cities, and the response we’re getting is extremely positive – we’re seeing lots of customers transferring to bikes and scooters over shorter distances. It’s growing super-fast so we’re definitely looking at the Middle East as another potential area for implementation in the future. We’re making sure that the infrastructure is in place and we’re in conversations [with relevant authorities] to ensure that the technology can be rolled out.”

Introducing innovation in the region

Flying taxis, driverless cars and electric bikes may be some way off for Uber’s Middle East customers, but that’s not to say that the company is not innovating in the region. Waked’s team has been working on a raft of MENA-specific initiatives designed to improve sustainability, inclusivity, safety and everything else in between.

Uber has a goal of electric vehicle take-off and landing (eVTOL) flight demonstrations in 2020

For instance, Uber is using Jordan as a testbed for sustainable transport options. Since launching operations in the kingdom in 2015, the company has made significant progress towards its goal of boosting electric vehicle (EV) implementation.

“Jordan has adopted progressive policies for EVs – both hybrids and fully electric vehicles – to encourage higher adoption rates, including lower taxes and negligible licensing and registration fees,” says Waked. “We have worked closely with the Jordanian government to adhere to these policies and, as a result, we have seen a significant increase in [the size of] our EV fleet, and a stronger product offering for our customers.

“At the end of 2018, we communicated our target of ensuring that 50 percent of our operational fleet [in Jordan] is comprised of EVs. We can proudly say that we have already well exceeded our target, making Jordan one of the top countries globally for cleaner Uber vehicles,” he adds.

In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Uber wasted no time in welcoming female drivers after the kingdom began issuing driving licences to women in 2018.

Masaruky, which means ‘your path’ in Arabic, comprises a framework of initiatives launched by the company as part of its SAR1m ($266,626) pledge to increase female participation in the workforce through access to affordable transportation.

“In May 2019, as part of Masaruky, we announced a strategic partnership with Takamol Holding as part of the Wusool initiative,” says Waked. “This programme is aimed at enabling working women in Saudi Arabia to overcome transportation challenges to and from the workplace by providing affordable, subsidised transportation solutions and encouraging women to contribute towards the country’s socio-economic progress, in line with the kingdom’s 2030 Vision.

“Our focus here is to continue offering mobility solutions that create more access for riders, drivers and cities”

“‘Women Preferred View’, meanwhile, is a feature we launched in April this year that is designed to give women driver-partners in Saudi Arabia the choice to select a preference for women riders. A global first for Uber, this aims to provide greater access to economic opportunities for Saudi women, while being mindful of the cultural context.”

Boosting employment

Since the launch of Masaruky, hundreds of Saudi women have expressed an interest in driving for Uber, according to Waked. “It is extremely encouraging to see the high volume of demand, and confirms to us the need for more women-focussed solutions,” he explains. “Currently we have a number of women driving on the app in the kingdom, and we are excited at the prospect of having more in the near future. We expect the number of applicants to the Wusool programme to increase to more than 600,000 by 2020.”

In a drive to widen participation in the UAE, Uber announced that its first Emirati drivers would be joining the platform earlier this year. Waked says that by making it possible for UAE nationals to drive on the platform using their own vehicles, Uber is providing flexible economic opportunities in the Emirates.

“It also allows us to further support the government’s efforts to position Abu Dhabi as a pioneer in improving quality of life through urban mobility and smart initiatives,” he adds.

In addition to the market-specific initiatives that Uber has launched in the Middle East, it is also working to improve safety standards on a regional level. For example, the firm has introduced ‘Check Your Ride’ push notifications and in-app banners as a visual reminder for riders.

“Using Uber safely starts with checking your ride,” says Waked. “Riders should never get in a car with a driver who claims to be with Uber, but doesn’t match [the profile] in the app. Every time a rider takes a trip with Uber, they can make sure they’re getting into the right car with the right driver by matching the licence plate, car make and model, and the driver profile with what’s provided.”

Uber JUMP bikes are currently available in 15 cities around the world

While safety is clearly a key focus for Waked and his team, the most intensely scrutinised aspect of Uber’s global operations is arguably its financial model. Earlier this year, the company went public with the fourth largest initial public offering (IPO) in history, but the numbers haven’t been following the trajectory that many had hoped for.

Profitability prospects

Despite revenue of $11.3bn, the company is yet to turn a profit. Its losses grew to $5.2bn in Q2 2019, with shares falling by up to 12 percent following the news.

Few would deny that disruption costs, but how long can Uber continue to operate in the red? Waked believes that the Middle East can play an important role in his employer’s journey towards profitability.

“The Middle East is one of the fastest growing regions for Uber globally, and our focus here is to continue offering mobility solutions that create more access for riders, drivers and cities,” he says.

“Uber is a huge economic contributor and a significant investor in the region. We expect these investments to be profitable in the coming years. For example, Uber is the leading economic contributor in Egypt and a key investor in the country, with plans to invest $100m over the next five years. In Saudi Arabia, we have played an active role in [nationalisation], with more than 200,000 Saudi nationals joining the Uber platform in the last two years – beating our initial goal to reach 100,000 by 2020.”

The clearest affirmation of the Middle East’s strategic importance to Uber came with the news of its $3.1bn takeover of Dubai-headquartered Careem – the company’s biggest ever acquisition. The deal, announced in March 2019, will see Careem become a wholly owned subsidiary of Uber, and represents the largest ever tech industry transaction in the greater Middle East region.

“This deal is testament to the success of both Uber and Careem in the Middle East,” says Waked. “I think we can create significant value by ensuring that both companies are working together to solve the biggest challenges [in our sector].”

Hundreds of Saudi women have already expressed interest in driving with Uber

An acquisition of this magnitude will inevitably bolster Uber’s market share in the region, but the firm cannot afford to become complacent. Competition is rife within the Middle East’s lift-hailing sector, and new players are hungrily eying a piece of the action. In July 2019, the Egyptian armed forces announced the launch of Dubci Smart Transport, a mobile app that will allow users to book cars, buses, yachts, helicopters and motorbikes. UAE businessman Mohamed Alabbar’s Symphony Investments is also among a number of institutions to sign an agreement with China’s Didi Chuxing to establish an Abu Dhabi-headquartered joint venture.

Nevertheless, Waked is confident that Uber will continue to innovate and grow – because of, rather than in spite of, fresh competition. “We believe competition will always be present in the markets in which we operate,” he says.

“It’s a very healthy thing because it pushes us to innovate, to bring our best products to market and to deliver the best offerings for the region. It also encourages us to think locally in terms of the challenges we’re working to solve.”

Waked concludes: “We definitely believe that competition will increase, and it’s something we’re excited about – it keeps us on our toes. Ultimately, Uber wants to be a core driver of growth in the Middle East. We want to establish ourselves as the leading technology company in the region, and we aim to achieve this by providing seamless transportation for our customers.”

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