Saudi Women Getting Keys to Car May Boost Toyota, Hurt Uber

  • Toyota, Hyundai lead market opening up to half of population
  • Uber may see demand drop from royal order on female drivers

Saudi Arabia Lifts Ban on Women Drivers

The ultraconservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued an order allowing women to drive, ending a long-standing policy that’s cast an unflattering light on the country’s treatment of women. It’s also a royal opportunity for global automakers eager to make further inroads into the Middle East’s biggest economy. 

Saudi Arabia’s move to open up its auto market to about half of its 32 million total population will have a profound impact on vehicle demand, driving habits and even immigration patterns in a country where low-wage immigrants from Bangladesh and the Philippines often work as hired drivers.

Market leaders such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co., whose hulking sport utility vehicles are a fixture on Saudi roadways, may need to boost inventory of smaller models such as compacts and sedans for single working women and female students, analysts say. On the flip side, app-driven, ride-hailing services like Uber Technologies Inc. could experience a drop in demand, as more women buy their own cars and get behind the wheel.

“This decision to allow women to drive is a great opportunity for the automotive sector and will give the sector a boost in short to long term,” Emmanuel Darku, an analyst with IHS Markit, said by email. “Nevertheless, there are some limiting factors that have to be considered before becoming too euphoric.”

The change by King Salman bin Abdulaziz to issue driver’s license to women starting in June is the latest twist in a far larger effort to modernize and diversify the kingdom’s economy and lessen its dependence on oil. Headwinds for the economy have sapped car demand, with sales down 28 percent to about 300,000 vehicles through the first seven months of 2017, according to IHS.

Activists have repeatedly defied the ban, launching campaigns in which women have been filmed getting behind the wheel illegally. Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world to be lifting such restrictions.

“This is very exciting,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with car-shopping website Kelley Blue Book, who worked in Saudi Arabia for more than two years. “It’s not going to be without obstacles, but it’s a huge step forward in terms of Saudi Arabia recognizing the contributions that women can make to the economy.”

Market Share

Japanese automaker Toyota accounted for 32 percent of the 676,000 vehicles sold in Saudi Arabia last year, while South Korea’s Hyundai ranked second with 24 percent market share, according to Jeff Schuster, an analyst with LMC Automotive. The country ranks 21st out of the 198 markets the researcher tracks, he said.

Toyota signed an agreement in March to conduct a feasibility study on local production in the kingdom. Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai were also in early stages of talks to open local plants, Asharq Al-Awsat reported in June, citing an interview with a Saudi minister.

U.S. manufacturers have a big opportunity if they can appeal to Saudi women’s tastes in fashion and technology with culturally sensitive marketing on television and on social media, said Nahed Eltantawy, a professor of journalism at High Point University in North Carolina, who has edited a book on women and media in the Middle East. Nevertheless, many families in Saudi, which are traditionally quite large, already owning more than one car may limit the additional demand, according to IHS.

Diverse Women

“Given that a lot of women will be traveling with kids, any advertising for family cars and vans to help with the children in the back would be helpful,” she said. “They need to offer diverse advertising that caters to the diverse women in Saudi Arabia.”

The country has a young and growing population. The median age is about 27, and only about 8 percent of the population is over 55, according to the CIA’s World Factbook

Initially, the liberalization move may create road safety issues as new, inexperienced drivers navigate Saudi Arabia’s streets, Lindland said. This could blunt the negative impact on ride-sharing services like Uber, at least at first.

Uber also could benefit from a new pool of female drivers for its car-hire service. The government also has a vested interest in seeing the company succeed -- Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is a major investor.

“We’re proud to have been able to provide extraordinary mobility for women in Saudi, and are excited by the economic opportunities this change could represent for them in the future,” Uber said in an emailed statement. About 80 percent of the company’s rides in Saudi Arabia are for women.

Less Demand

The other group that will see less demand are the thousands of private drivers who work directly for families, Lindland said. The policy change could shift the immigration patterns of the country if people no longer need the service, she said.

In a statement on King Salman’s order, Saudi Arabia said agencies have been instructed to expand licensing facilities and driver-education programs to accommodate millions of new drivers. The challenges for some will be profound.

“You don’t really learn your way around because you don’t drive,” Lindland said, speaking from her own experience in the country. “You don’t pay attention because you’re in the back, or you’re in a shuttle bus. If you don’t drive, you don’t absorb.”

— With assistance by Vivian Nereim, Wael Mahdi, Kevin Buckland, Gerry Smith, Dana El Baltaji, Shaji Mathew, and Elisabeth Behrmann

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