Uber is getting a massive $3.5 billion cash infusion from Saudi Arabia, a move government officials say will help create more opportunities for women, who are largely prevented from driving in the oil-rich kingdom.
The $3.5 billion investment from the Saudi Public Investment Fund, which was announced on Wednesday, is believed to be one the largest ever single investments in a privately-held technology company. Uber is valued at $62.5 billion, making it the most valuable non-publicly traded company in Silicon Valley.
Uber is one of several taxi-hailing services operating in Saudi Arabia, where an estimated 80 percent of passengers are women. While there is no law in the kingdom against women driving, Islamic clerics have ruled that the practice is forbidden, and few women do drive. In addition, women are required to be accompanied by a male guardian in public.
Uber touted the investment from the Saudi fund as a way to promote social reforms in the country that aim to give women more independence.
“Our experience in Saudi Arabia is a great example of how Uber can benefit riders, drivers and cities and we look forward to partnering to support their economic and social reforms,” Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick said in a statement.
The head of the Saudi fund, Yasir Al Rumayyan, also emphasized that expanding Uber’s presence in Saudi Arabia would further reform efforts.
“This ambitious and far-reaching plan presents a number of goals, including unlocking strategic sectors such as tourism and entertainment, boosting employment opportunities and women’s participation in the workforce, and encouraging entrepreneurship,” Al Rumayyan said in a statement.
As part of the deal, Al Rumayyan will join’s Uber’s board of directors.
Not everyone is Saudi Arabia, however, necessarily views the deal as a boon for women.
Mona abu Suliman, a consultant in Riyadh, told Al Jazeera that it was “mainly just an investment story … Women still cannot drive.”
And a women’s rights activist, Hatoon al-Fassi, noted that only a certain class of woman benefits from ride-hailing services,those “who have a bank account and credit card, which is not the case of the majority of women.”
The Middle East has emerged as an increasingly important market for Uber, which has faced intense competition in China and other overseas markets. The company says it now operates 15 Middle East cities and nine countries, and that it has over 395,000 active riders in the region, five times more than it had just a year ago.
The Saudi investment in Uber comes as deep-pocketed corporations have pumped increasingly large sums into ride-hailing companies, which are scrambling to seize market share around the world. Apple recently invested $1 billion in Didi Chuxing, the dominant ride-hailing company in China, and General Motors invested $500,000 in Lyft, Uber’s primary U.S. competitor.