Ride-hailing apps have become an essential mode of transportation in many cities around the world, providing convenience and ease of travel. However, in Saudi Arabia, Uber and other ride-hailing services have gained notoriety as the region’s worst.

The blame for this situation lies not with the company itself, but rather with the Saudi government and its regulations that have hampered the industry.

The restrictive policies have resulted in a shortage of drivers and a decline in the quality of service, making it increasingly difficult for residents and visitors to navigate the sprawling Saudi capital.

Uber’s Market Dominance in Saudi Arabia

According to Statista, Uber holds the majority market share in Saudi Arabia, capturing 50% of the ride-hailing market. This position solidifies Uber’s dominance in the country’s transportation sector. Bolt, another prominent ride-hailing platform, follows closely behind with a market share of 33%. These statistics highlight the significant role that Uber plays in Saudi Arabia’s ride-hailing industry and the impact of the current challenges on a large portion of the population heavily reliant on the service.

Ride-hailing & Taxi Brand Shares in Saudi Arabia | Statista

Government Regulations and Conflicting Targets Harm Uber and Its Users

According to The Financial Times, the Saudi government finds itself caught in a web of conflicting targets and regulations that have created a challenging environment for ride-hailing companies. On one hand, the government aims to attract foreign companies and boost tourism, demanding that businesses relocate their regional headquarters to Saudi Arabia to secure state contracts.

On the other hand, the government seeks to reduce unemployment by increasing job opportunities for Saudi nationals in the private sector.

In 2020, the government implemented a regulation that restricted ride-hailing app drivers to Saudi citizens only, significantly narrowing the pool of potential recruits. Given that more than 40% of Saudi Arabia’s population consists of foreigners, this policy created a scarcity of eligible drivers. Furthermore, the requirement that drivers own cars less than five years old further exacerbated the shortage, as many potential drivers did not meet this criterion.

Consequently, Uber and its subsidiary Careem experienced a significant drop in the number of ride requests accepted and completed by drivers.

The requirement that drivers own cars less than five years old in Saudi Arabia, further exacerbated the shortage © AFP via Getty Images

The Impact on Uber Customers and Drivers

As a result of the driver shortage, customers in Saudi Arabia have been facing increasingly frustrating experiences when using ride-hailing services. Long wait times, multiple cancellations, and unreliable service have become the norm, leaving commuters and business travelers stranded or resorting to alternative, often more expensive, transportation options.

The lack of a reliable public transport system in Riyadh exacerbates the problem, as the city relies heavily on ride-hailing services.

The frustration among customers is palpable, with one resident, Rami, expressing his dissatisfaction, stating:

“I’ve used Uber in New York, Dubai, and Europe. This is the worst.”

Many drivers, who often already have full-time jobs, prefer to avoid busy areas and rush hours, leading to increased cancellations and prolonged wait times.

Government’s Attempt at Rectification

Recognizing the negative impact of these regulations on the ride-hailing industry, the Saudi government has made some efforts to address the issues. After lobbying from Uber and Careem, the government extended the age limit for cars used by drivers to seven years, allowing a larger pool of vehicles to participate.

Moreover, both companies have implemented new features in their apps, such as showing the destination and fare before the pickup and reducing cancellations due to inconvenient routes or payment methods.

Uber and Careem are also working with the government and banks to devise car financing plans for drivers, aiming to make it easier for them to meet vehicle ownership requirements. Despite these efforts, the industry still faces significant challenges in providing reliable and efficient services to customers in Saudi Arabia.

Clashing Priorities and Vision 2030

Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia was developed by the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, chaired by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The issues faced by the ride-hailing industry in Saudi Arabia reflect the broader challenges of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program. While the plan aims to diversify the economy and attract foreign investment, it also seeks to increase non-oil revenue through taxes and fees and promote employment opportunities for Saudi nationals in private businesses.

The clash between the government’s investment in the ride-hailing industry and the regulations imposed on it underscores the lack of coordination in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to achieve its economic goals. The introduction of retroactive tax bills and additional charges on ride-hailing companies further adds to the burdens faced by these businesses.

Looking Ahead for Saudi Arabia

The current state of ride-hailing services in Saudi Arabia raises concerns about the government’s ability to effectively balance its economic objectives with the needs and demands of businesses and consumers. As the country strives to become a more attractive destination for foreign companies and tourists, addressing the issues faced by the ride-hailing industry will be crucial.

Collaboration between the government and companies like Uber and Careem, along with a more flexible and supportive regulatory framework, will be essential in improving the reliability and quality of ride-hailing services in Saudi Arabia.

In the meantime, residents and visitors in Riyadh continue to face the challenge of navigating a city with limited public transport options and an unreliable ride-hailing system.

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