On June 24, 2018, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive for the first time in sixty years, and Uber and Careem demonstrated exceptional social savvy in the months leading up to and since this historic day. How can your brand follow suit? Solid social media listening tools are a great place to start!

Why Were Women Banned From Driving?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows a particularly strict brand of Islamic law known as ‘Wahhabism’, an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam. “It says that men and women should be kept separate and that women should wear veils to cover themselves . . . and it’s also the law in Saudi Arabia that every woman must have a male guardian, [typically a] relative or the woman’s husband.” For years, Saudi women have been protesting this ban and facing arrest for doing so.

In January of 2018, Uber and Careem started recruiting female drivers in anticipation of the promised June change. “Female customers currently represent 80% of Uber’s Saudi rider base and 70% of business for its Dubai-based counterpart, Careem, according to statistics shared with CNN by both companies. The apps are a lifeline to women with no independent way to get around the Kingdom.”

The historic day was shared on Twitter using the hashtag #shedrives:

Aseel Al Hamad, the Representative of Women in Motorsport in Saudi Arabia generated lots of attention for the effort as well:

Understanding Cultural Sensitivities

Careem and Uber are cautiously navigating cultural sensitivities related to gender mixing by announcing female drivers will be restricted to female riders or families. And it “will also provide a call masking option, to block the contact numbers between the driver and the customer, to protect privacy.”

And to head off a backlash, Saudi Arabia’s government passed a law against sexual harassment, with a penalty of up to five years in prison, and warned men not to stalk women drivers on the road.

It’s not enough for businesses to be aware of cultural differences and implement action plans though. Staying on top of the social conversation around your efforts are equally, if not more, important in the long run. A one-off mishap can be corrected, just ask Tesco with its bacon-flavored Pringles, prominently displayed for its Ramadan promotion!

But a consistent disregard for angry buzz around your actions, cultural or otherwise? Well, we can take the extreme example of Monsanto, which is quite possibly the most hated company around right now, with a buzz that has been building for years that they chose to ignore rather than make changes. And now it faces a $289 million lawsuit, with many more pending.

Hopefully any misunderstandings your brand encounters fall somewhere between the two, leaning more toward the “whoops” side than a consistent, building hate – but if you aren’t monitoring social sentiment, do you really know for sure?

The Man Behind the Saudi Cultural Shift Curtain

Since the 32-year-old risk-taking Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, assumed power in 2017, Saudi Arabia has lifted bans on women not only driving, but attending movies and music concerts with men. “Saudi Arabia’s transformation, including allowing women greater freedoms and equality, may be essential to its economy. Experts say that as the nation shifts away from an economy predominantly reliant on oil, more households will need dual incomes.”

And this transformation is all part of Saudi Vision 2030, and the overarching goal of solidifying its status as “the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse, and the hub connecting three continents.” Likely not coincidentally, “Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is a large investor in Uber, after acquiring a $3.5 billion stake in the company in 2016.”

But nonetheless, the goal is admirable, and the prince’s sentiment is holding steady, thanks, in large part, to these recent reforms, but there are still quite a few trouble spots to take note of and address (or not) accordingly:

It’s also interesting to note that most of the posts happening about Saudi Arabia aren’t coming from Saudi Arabia. As they work to court a more global economy, this makes sense. But it also leaves one to wonder if their intended target audience is posting via a censorship-free VPN (as is likely the case) maybe removing those restrictions would be a smart next step, to ensure one is gathering relevant insight from the local population.

Or maybe these ladies have about as much share of voice as they’re comfortable with at this point in time?

Any businesses wanting to leap into the stunning financial opportunities Saudi Arabia presents would do well to explore the cultural complexities that accompany whatever niche you plan to pursue. And understand that penalties for stepping outside of those parameters, even for a “whoops” moment may reach well beyond financial levies.

Considering a new venture overseas? Reach out and we’ll show you how to fully navigate that horizon!

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