Careem and Uber are the only two ride sharing companies operating in Saudi Arabia. While Uber boasts of its operations in more than 600 cities worldwide, Careem, a Dubai-based company, only operates in 53 select cities in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. But despite its global popularity, Uber does not have operations in Abha, the capital of Asir Province in the Southwestern region of Saudi Arabia. And more surprisingly, Careem drivers have the sole monopoly over the commuting public in this city.
Google Maps estimated the walking distance from Eram Hotel to Al Souda National Park to be more than five hours. But knowing how an estimated 30-minute walking distance would usually take me more than an hour to reach, I would have to leave the hotel at midnight if I had to reach Mount Souda just after sunrise.
I had been walking more than two kilometers at a time on my first day of navigating the streets of Abha. On my second day in the city, I decided to give myself a break and gave Careem a try.
Careem Driver No. 1: Mohammed
I booked a ride at 7:18 in the morning and, according to the Careem app, the driver was just a minute away. If you’re familiar with ride sharing applications, you would know that both your and the driver’s locations are indicated on the in-app map. I was standing in front of the hotel but the driver stopped at a different location. A few minutes later, the driver called to inform me that he was at the parking lot at the back of the building. Thinking that it was the hotel building he was referring to, I went to the back of the hotel but it seems that I was getting farther away from his location. I have circled the block where the hotel was but I still did not find him. He called again and we both started moving while talking on the phone until finally, we’re both in front of the hotel.
Mohammed was the driver on my first Careem ride. He’s a Saudi National and a bit on the talkative side. He kept apologizing for his limited English but his source of narratives was never ending. From him, I learned that the temperature in the city would drop to 8 degrees Centigrade starting in October and it continue to go down below zero for the rest of the winter season. It doesn’t snow but Frost was always a problem and there were times when the mountain would turn completely white. Mount Souda has its own village but since there were not enough schools, the young ones are all in the city proper. Only the older folks who chose to live a simpler life stay up on the mountain.
We passed by a coffee shop and he asked me whether I wanted to stop for coffee. I told him I already had breakfast earlier so there was no need for us to stop. We were already a few hundred meters from the coffee shop when I realized perhaps it was him who wanted to stop for coffee.
A few minutes later, he slowed down his car to show me a honey bee farm on the roadside and asked me if I wanted to go. But I declined. I was worried enough that he wouldn’t have a passenger on his way back to further bother him with unnecessary stops.
On our way up to Mount Souda, he asked me which I think was cheaper between Uber and Careem. But since it was my first time with that ride sharing company, I told him I have yet to find out. Mohammed suggested that I check what the app’s estimated price for our current trip. Careem’s estimate was between 35 to 40 Saudi Riyals but since I haven’t taken more than a 20-kilometer Uber ride, I still couldn’t give a good comparison. Finally, he told me most of his passengers were telling Careem was more expensive.
Our conversation became more personal after a while. Through his broken English, I learned that he has a wife and a son and that driving with Careem was his sole source of income. And though he didn’t tell me how much he is earning from driving, he was so generous to share that, on average, he would have to pay 1,700 Saudi Riyals to Careem every month. According to him, Careem collects 25% on each ride so you can do the math.
We traveled 25km in less than thirty minutes reaching Al Souda National Park just a few minutes before 8:00 AM. The fare was 35 Saudi Riyals. I wasn’t sure whether he could still pickup a passenger on his way down the mountains so I offered to pay 50 Riyals, instead but he declined. “Careem says 35 Riyals so I only collect 35 Riyals.”
He asked what time do I plan to go down but I told him I still wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to trouble him and in case I can’t find another car, I’m more than willing to walk down.
Careem Driver No. 2: Nasser
I still wanted to stay in Mount Souda until 5:00 in the afternoon. However, I knew that should I fail to book a car, I would have to walk back to the city proper for more than five hours. Should I leave at five, I would be trekking in the dark and it was not the safest thing to do. So I booked for Careem at 2:48 PM. The driver is about 6KM away and he’ll arrive in 12 minutes. 12 minutes passed and I saw the car pass me by and, if not for the traffic that was starting to build up, I would have to be following his car forever.
Nasser was the silent type and did not look very friendly unlike most Saudis. My conversations with him were limited to where I was going and how much was my fare. On the contrary, Nasser was very observant. The wind from the opened window was blowing my hair and when I started to hold it, he offered to close the window and use the air-conditioning instead. I told him there was no need to use the AC, just close the window and leave a space for a bit of air. When I started taking videos of the road, he slowed down the car and lowered the volume of his car stereo.
Suddenly, a couple crossed the road. I shrieked, Nasser chuckled.
Careem Driver No. 3: Abdulraouf
My conversations with Abdulraouf started unpleasantly. On my second night in Abha, I wanted to try the food trucks I saw the other day near the park at King Abdul Aziz Road. I booked a ride and a few minutes later, the car assigned to me park in another location as usual. The Careem driver called to inform me he was parked at the back of the building. Again, I thought he was at the back of the hotel so I proceeded to circle the block but I could not pin point his location. Perhaps impatient, the driver canceled my booking.
I had no choice but to book another car but, by some stroke of bad luck, he was the same driver Careem assigned to me.
“My friend, you sent the wrong location!” He was raising his voice on the phone in exasperation. “It wasn’t my fault,” I raised mine in retaliation. He told me he was at the back of the Telemoney building, the one in front of the hotel, and that I just needed to cross the building to get to him.
I was expecting a bit of tension when we meet but, as soon as I opened the car door, he greeted me with all smiles. We both agreed that something is wrong with the app which was causing the wrong location.
Abdulraouf was also a Saudi National and it had only been his fifth day driving for Careem. As usual, I was asked how Careem was compared to Uber. I told him Uber is still cheaper but the difference was not very large. In addition, Uber’s app was more accurate in pointing locations. It had been my third Careem ride since I arrived and the drivers were always pointed to wrong locations. “Perhaps it’s because Abha is a small and not very popular city so the map is not always updated,” he said. He must be right.
“Let’s not follow the map,” Abdulraouf suggested. “I live here and I knew this place, just tell me where you want to go and I can take you there.” I mentioned about the food trucks along Abdul Aziz Road. “I’ve seen those, but which one you’d like to go?” I told him I wanted to try the one with the burgers.
We talked about the city and that I was there for a three-day vacation. When I told him I traveled by bus for more than eight hours, he said Saudis can do that in less than six.
We reached the first food truck but it was closed so he kept driving until we reach the one that was already opened. “It’s still a holiday and only about 50% of the stores were open,” he explained.
I had a negative balance of six Riyals so my total fare was 17 when it should have been just 11. Perhaps I incurred the penalty when he canceled the first trip. I was handing him a hundred Riyal bill but he didn’t have enough change so I told him I will order my food so I can pay him.
“Please hurry up,” he said when I left the car. “There are other passengers waiting.”
I had difficulty trying to read Abdulraouf.
Careem Driver No. 4: Ziyad
On my third day in Abha, I was having my very late lunch at McDonald’s when I started to feel the toll my long walks under the noontime sun had on my face. It was cold enough in Abha for me to notice the heat slowly scorching my face. It was only when I looked at myself in the mirror did I realize how red it had become. I decided to go back to Jeddah.
I tried to book a ride to the bus station but the Careem app crashed twice. On my third attempt, I finally managed to book a ride. I noticed the driver was going to the bus station, my supposed drop off point. And only then did I noticed the pick up point was actually pointed in that location. It started to rain. I went inside McDonald’s again and called the driver of my current location. He was confused but informed me he will arrive in two minutes.
Ziyad was not the type who would start a conversation but was ready with an elaborate response when asked. I learned from our conversations that he was just 22 and, just like the many young Saudi guys, he was single. He has a regular day job and he was driving with Careem part time. When I told him my destination, he gave a wide smile that caused both ends of his eyes to wrinkle. “That’s where I came to pick you up,” he told me. “I know,” I replied. “My Careem app crashed twice and I wasn’t sure it if was my fault.”
The rain stopped as we approach near the bus station. Ziyad told me it haven’t rained for the past two weeks and that it probably rained that day because I’m going back to Jeddah.
We reached the location indicated on the app but we couldn’t see the SAPTCO bus station. I checked Google Map and it we were on the same spot. “Did you see any bus parked,” he asked me. “I don’t see any bus parked anywhere,” I replied. I told him it should be a satellite office and I could go down and look around. He refused and told me he will ask around. He drove the car and asked every person passing by. We circled the area twice and finally had someone pointed us to a commercial space with glass doors.
The ticketing office was closed. A by-passer told me I had to wait until 9:30 in the evening for the next Jeddah-bound bus to arrive. And so I waited, alone.