Careem plans major push to cater for more Saudi women

Tailored services in the Kingdom part of growing plans

Careem could consider selling shares to the public once the company is profitable but an IPO is not on the books at the moment, according to chief executive Mudassir Sheikha. Alex Atack / The National.

Careem is planning a major push in Saudi Arabia that will target nearly 2.7 million women that cannot drive and have no means of transport outside of their immediate family.

The ride-share company is further tailoring its services for the Middle East's largest economy, including ensuring that personal details such as the mobile numbers of women passengers are not shared with drivers.

Founder Mudassir Sheikha outlined future expansion plans ahead of its five-year anniversary tomorrow, a journey that has seen the Dubai start-up grow from having 25 drivers to 250,000 signed up across the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan and a valuation of more than $1 billion.

In an interview with The National, he also raised the prospect of a future initial public offering (IPO), describing it as a "natural milestone", though said that was not on the cards at this time.

Careem managed to raise $350 million from investors in December and "we don’t really need the money at the moment", Mr Sheikha said. Among the investors was Saudi Telecom, which took a 10 per cent stake in the company.

“There are 2.7 million women in Saudi that are not working today because they don’t have a reliable means of transport to go to work," he said, referencing figures from the Saudi authorities.

"So these are all trips and mobility that needs to be provided - but it’s not there so it’s not happening."

About 1.9 million of 13 million Saudi women participate in the workforce and require to travel daily. Many have personal drivers, which requires them to sponsor them an as expat, pay them a salary and the cost of owning a vehicle.

“They also rely on male figures to take them to places. If they are not available, then these women are unable to take those trips needed," he said.

The company is rapidly growing the number of drivers it is linked with. Drivers operate as individual contractors, but are trained by the company. Many work for companies than buy fleets of vehicles, but others take out loans to buy cars and operate as self-employed individuals.

Ramon Peñas Jr / The National

For Careem, Saudi is an “exciting market, it’s not only big, but different”. The company’s main focus for the next five years will be based on how it will “enable people that are not on the platform to join the app and to provide services for people that are waiting for something to be available”.

The Dubai-based company already tailored operations for Saudi when it launched there in 2013.

“We realised that many people don’t have a credit card, so we figured out a way that would enable customers to pay for our services without having the need to use one," he said, explaining the decision to introduce cash transactions.

In fact, a majority of Careem’s customers in the Kingdom are now women.

The company has already built a call centre to liaise directly between the driver and customer, so that numbers need not be shared, ensuring privacy for passengers.

Like Uber, its ride-share rival, which operates a similar business model, it has had its share of licensing snags. This includes in Saudi, where both were banned from airport pick-ups when they fell foul of established transport regulations.

In Abu Dhabi, both companies had to shut down their operations in the capital last August when a number of their drivers were taken into police custody for transgressing strict private limousine pricing regulations.

Careem has since had that lifted and operates a limo-only service, with fares starting at about Dh40 per trip, which is significantly more than in Dubai. Uber has yet to return to the capital.

"It’s up and running, we are serving thousands of customers every day and the service is fully licensed and legal - a little more expensive because of the regulatory requirement that we have to comply with, but Abu Dhabi market is quiet big and the opportunity is also big," he said.

Mr Sheikha also said he does not see Uber as a rival - and many drivers work for both companies.

"If it wasn’t for Uber coming to the Middle East in 2013, I’m 100 per cent sure we would have not been where we are today," he said.

"We would have been slower, less aggressive, less ambitious - it’s been a great blessing that have made us sharper in our approach.

"Between them and us we are less than 1 per cent of the trips in the region - so we can either compete with them and try and capture a bigger per cent of that 1 per cent or we can say 'how can we get the other 99 per cent' of the market that is not on board."

For the next five years, Careem aspires to be the "biggest mover of people and things in the region".

The infrastructure that Careem has built "can be put to work for the movement of things such as food, groceries and electronic parcels” said Mr Sheikha.

As for offering public shares, he said it remains a future plan, with no date set.

“An IPO is a natural milestone, at the moment we are growing rapidly it’s hard to say when. We are still very focused on the business, we have just raised a large round from investors and so we don’t really need the money at the moment," he said.