JEDDAH: In Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive, transportation is definitely an issue. Women are usually driven around by family members and personal drivers, or are forced to use some other type of private transportation. While the private transport is a booming business, the higher the demand the more expensive the supply becomes.
Providing alternative solutions is the only exit. Some companies provide cars and drivers to ferry their women employees for work purposes, but not all companies have the budget to do that. Workingwomen, meanwhile, find it difficult getting to work and are often charged thousands of riyals a month in transportation.
Hadeel Al-Amir, a 30-year-old employee at a private company, does not have a personal driver. Her husband also travels a lot and so she used to face an everyday dilemma when going to work.
Therefore, she found a driver who charges SR1,200 a month to take her to and from work everyday. Of course, she pays extra to go to other destinations apart from work. “I pay SR40 per trip and sometimes even more if this driver is not available,” said Al-Amir.
Al-Amir receives SR300 a month in car allowance. “The government should provide more means of transportation,” she added. She believes spending this amount of money on transportation is a “rip off.”
“Limousines could come in handy sometimes but I have to wait in the street to catch one,” she said, explaining how she had to once wait for 20 minutes under the sun for a taxi.
Many believe that buses would also be expedient. However, buses need stations and a bus network, something that the Kingdom lacks. The few buses that do operate in cities and towns across the Kingdom do so randomly.
“I would go on a bus if the service was available the whole day,” said Mona Ismaeel who is 25 and employed at a company on Jeddah’s Madinah Road. “Me and my sisters spent huge amounts of money on transportation when we were studying at university, not to mention the harassment of drivers,” she said.
Mona’s father died and she has no brothers. “My mother uses my aunts’ drivers every now and then,” she said, explaining how this is an embarrassing situation.
The family bought a small car but drivers would not last long. “Drivers nowadays charge up to SR2,000 a month. We have a visa but our last driver only stayed with us for one month and then ran away so he could work illegally and earn double what he was getting from us,” she added.
Mona said the government should find a solution to the “humiliation” she and women like her face. “Rich people do not worry about transportation. They buy three cars instead of one and issue as many visas as they want,” she said.
Although the government is building bridges to ease congestion on Jeddah’s roads, they are still far from finding solutions to the problem.
The private sector, however, recognizes the potential of the chauffeur-driven car business. Meshwar, a car service company, provides transportation and charges by the hour. The service started three years ago and expanded due to high demand. According to Shadi Shakir, the company’s marketing manager, most of the company’s clients are women. “Our customers are those who do not have drivers and at the same time do not want to use taxis,” he said.
“The company was established to serve the needs of society. We are now increasing our business,” Shakir said.
Saudis, however, are not the only ones who suffer from a lack of transportation. Expatriates experience the same. They, however, are not allowed to issue driver visas.
A German expatriate, who lives and works here along with his wife and son, faces a lot of problems especially since his wife works and son goes to school. “Now we have a car, we are not allowed driver visas,” he said, adding that only foreign doctors and general managers are allowed that luxury, and that he does not fall into either category.
“The only way to get a driver is on the black market. We’ve hired an illegal driver who charges SR1,800 a month,” he said. He described his situation as a “nightmare” especially since his wife does not speak Arabic and so he has to find a driver who speaks English.
At the same time, he worries about his son being ferried to school with a complete stranger. “A train, metro or a monorail could be really convenient. They would reduce the horrible traffic situation in Jeddah,” he said.