The Middle East’s biggest ride-hailing firm, Careem, is reportedly planning to hire up to 100,000 female chauffeurs in Saudi Arabia following the Kingdom’s landmark ruling allowing women to drive for the first time.

The government’s decree, which will come into effect in June next year, was welcomed around the world. Saudi Arabia was the only country to ban women from driving.

To run errands, socialize or get to work, women in Saudi Arabia have to rely on lifts from male relatives or personal drivers, or use ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem. It is hoped the change will allow more women to enter the workforce.

Keen to capitalize on the law change, Dubai-based Careem held its first recruitment session for female chauffeurs in the Saudi coastal city of Khobar. It reportedly attracted a diverse crowd – from housewives to working women – who already had foreign driving licences.

Careem, dubbed the “Uber of the Middle East”, operates across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Customers hail a ride through an app on their smartphone, and there will be an option for women and families in Saudi Arabia to request a female driver.

Reform in Saudi Arabia

Allowing women to drive is part of an ongoing reform agenda in the Kingdom. The government’s Vision 2030 aims to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependence on oil and create a more diversified economy. This includes the aim of increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030.

There have been other reforms in the past few years. In 2011 women were given the right to vote. And in 2015, they were elected to local councils for the first time.

As of this year, women no longer need permission from a male guardian to work, study or access hospital treatment.

And in September, women were allowed to enter a sports stadium for the first time to take part in the country's National Day celebrations.

A long way to go

A note placed by an unknown person on female driver Azza Al Shmasani's car, is pictured in Saudi Arabia June 22, 2011. Saudi Arabia has no formal ban on women driving. But as citizens must use only Saudi-issued licences in the country, and as these are issued only to men, women drivers are anathema. An outcry at the segregation, which contributes to the general cloistering of Saudi women, has been fuelled by social media interest in two would-be female motorists arrested in May.  REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed   (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: TRANSPORT SOCIETY) - GM1E76N02DR01
A note placed on a female driver's car
Image: REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

Despite these reforms, Saudi Arabia remains a deeply conservative country where women face heavy restrictions in their daily lives. They are required to wear robes and a headscarf in public and must have permission from a designated male relative to complete even the most basic of tasks, such as accepting a job or opening a bank account.

According to the latest edition of the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia ranks 141st out of 144 economies, although it is making rapid progress. The report looks at how women fare compared to men in four areas: health, education, employment and political representation.

Women keen to get their licences

According to a recent Arab News/YouGov poll, 77% of Saudis agreed with the decision to allow women to drive.

The poll – although limited (the sample was representative of the online adult Saudi population in terms of age and gender) – also found that 65% of Saudi women planned to apply for a licence. Almost half (43%) already had one, obtained outside Saudi Arabia.

The women-only Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University also anticipates demand, saying it is preparing to open a driving school for women “in cooperation with the relevant authorities”.