Women line up to hail Kuwait's pink taxis

New venture will give more freedom to Kuwait City's females, previously restricted by conservative values.

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KUWAIT CITY // When Bedoor al Mutairi waited for an hour for a lift from her brother after getting a flat tyre in the summer of 2008, she began to question Kuwait's cultural aversion to women riding in taxis. "If I was riding in a cab, other people would see me and say: 'Oh my God, this is cheap'," Ms al Mutairi, 27, said. "They will ask: 'Why didn't you call your parents, your brother or your father? Maybe you are doing something wrong.' This is the way it is in Kuwait - image is important."

But necessity is the mother of invention, and as Ms al Mutairi became late for an important appointment, she asked herself: why does someone not start a taxi company with women drivers for an exclusively female clientele? That would be acceptable to Kuwait's conservative families, she thought. As it happened, Ms al Mutairi was looking for an opportunity to invest her money at the time. She had started trading in the stock market when she was 18 with 5,000 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh64,100) and built up a portfolio worth "tens of thousands" of dinars. Just a few weeks before, with one eye on the financial crisis that was starting to bite in the US, she had sold her shares. Her decision was shrewd - by the end of the year the crisis had pummelled Kuwaiti stocks.

Ms al Mutairi may have escaped the bear market, but that did not mean the Kuwait University graduate wanted to stash her money away. She took the advice offered in a book by the investment guru Warren Buffet, who, she said, believes "gold opportunities are born in a crisis", and came up with a plan for Eve Taxis, or Hawaa Taxis in Arabic, a women-only service named after the Garden of Eden's first female resident.

Ms al Mutairi needed more capital if her idea could ever be brought to life. But one bank and two major investment companies baulked at her request for 50,000 Kuwaiti dinars. "This is a risky idea," she recalled the bank telling her. "We are in a crisis, and you are thinking about this?" Luckily for Ms al Mutairi, Kuwait Small Projects Development Company (KSPDC) liked her idea and agreed that demand for a women's taxi service existed. KSPDC encourages entrepreneurs in Kuwait by providing them with a maximum of 80 per cent - up to 400,000 dinars - of the capital they need to start a business. Ms al Mutairi said it invested "less than 100,000 dinars" in her venture. Each party holds shares in the company in proportion to how much of the start-up capital they supplied, and at the end of the year, 60 per cent of the profits are given to the entrepreneur to buy the KSPDC's shares at the original price. "We participate with the entrepreneur and gradually, every year, he will be able to buy us out, until he owns the project completely," explained Hassan al Qanaie, KSPDC's general manager. "After that, hopefully, he will have the potential to grow bigger and bigger." With financial support guaranteed, Ms al Mutairi began to research the plan in more detail. She found out that Dubai, Beirut, Tehran and Damascus all operated similar schemes. Alexandria and Cairo have announced plans to launch their own women-only taxi services soon as the idea increases in popularity across the Middle East. After securing finance in early 2009, Ms al Mutairi travelled to Dubai for one week to ride as many of the taxis as possible and ply the women drivers with questions about the job, working conditions and pay. After wading through Kuwait's tediously long business start-up procedures, Eve Taxis now has 10 pink cabs and plans to operate them on two eight-hour shifts each day. Ms al Mutairi said: "Now we have six drivers. I need 20, but I have to pick them carefully, so I'm doing a lot of interviews. The job will be hard, because the first time they are in the streets, everybody will laugh and stop their cars." Ms al Mutairi said because the job is tough, the drivers who have enlisted - from Asia, Nigeria and Egypt - are being well paid, "like secretaries". She hopes the first taxis will be on the road in about a month. If the coverage Ms al Mutairi's company has received in the local media is anything to go by, Eve Taxis could be KSPDC's next success story. Companies that sell products and services to women are clamouring to have their brochures placed in the cabs. Ms al Mutairi gets about 20 calls a day from Kuwaiti women saying they want to try the service. She said among the few dissenters are rich ladies who say if a woman has to take a taxi it infringes on her human rights because women should only be driven by family members or the family chauffeur. "I said: 'You don't know how women suffer from transportation.' This is useful for women, we are offering another option to them," she said. jcalderwood@thenational.ae