Anthony El-Khoury, Uber’s Middle East manager

Uber: Legal at Last?

Uber says new legislation could be imminent to finally regulate Jordan’s fast growing ride-hailing sector.

By Dina al Wakeel

Ride-hailing services have had anything but an easy ride since they first began shaking up Jordan’s creaky transport sector around two years ago.

This has mainly stemmed from a lack of regulation. Because while they might be expanding quickly due to high demand, companies like Uber are still unlicensed on paper, which has led to their drivers being detained and their cars impounded.

But as Anthony El-Khoury, Uber’s Middle East manager, reveals here, ongoing negotiations with the government and other stakeholders over the legalization of ride-hailing apps could yield results that will help create much-needed jobs and provide an affordable transportation option.

How close are you to reaching an agreement with the Jordanian government?

We are working with the Jordanian government to regulate the industry. I think today what’s very positive is that we’re sitting around the table to discuss new regulation. The reality is that we want to be regulated. It’s no secret that around the world we have regulation for the industry, for the drivers and for everyone, so we want this to happen here. We just need to find the best regulation to allow people to drive with Uber easily because in 2016 we had around 2000 drivers in Jordan, 70 percent of them were part timers. You have the students that want to do a couple of trips after their universities, you have moms who can have an extra income after they drop off their children to schools, so for us to be able to provide these people with this economic opportunity the licensing needs to be easy.

We won’t have a breakthrough unless all parties agree on the best solution going forward.

What have the main sticking points been in the talks?

Under the current regulation you need to be either a limousine driver or a yellow taxi driver. The government does understand that we need to evolve into something new, and I think this is why we are sitting around the table to discuss what the future looks like. Our vision like we’ve seen in other countries, the best example being Saudi Arabia, is to be able to provide this economic opportunity to anyone. Now we might not get there directly, but we need to get there little by little.

You got licensed in Saudi Arabia. How long did this process take?

I think it took us around a month and a half to get the license after we started discussions with the government. They moved very quickly. The Saudi Public Investment Fund invested in Uber but I don’t think this is what moved them, I think they really saw the opportunity. The reality there is that it’s quite difficult for women to move around the city so they thought that this is empowering women to move around, and this is something that they wanted to push forward.

How many of your drivers got arrested last year? And do you interfere when this happens?

Honestly I don’t know, but we did get some enforcement. It’s a reality that sometimes drivers did get enforced, they got stopped, some got their licenses taken away, the car [confiscated] for a couple of weeks. We can’t interfere, but we try to help our drivers as much as possible.

We have many drivers but we need to remember that in fact they are not employees, 70 percent of them have other jobs. The rest are also not employees and they still have the flexibility to work whenever they want and this is the beauty of Uber. Even if you work 12 hours on Uber, from eight to eight, or from five to five, you have the flexibility to decide when you want to work. I think this is what makes Uber that interesting to people.

What other rights do Uber drivers have, like health insurance, social security?

You’re looking at it as an employer-employee relationship. End of the day it is not this type of relationship. This is for them to have an extra income. Again, they have the flexibility, but they don’t get social benefits because they’re not full time employees at Uber.

How fast is Uber growing in Jordan and the region?

Cairo is the fastest growing city in Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). It is today the third biggest in EMEA. It is a huge market for us. We also have Saudi Arabia that is growing very fast. And the reality is that we’ve seen cities growing very fast when regulations permit it. Jordan has been a little bit difficult in that sense because there’s no regulation and even though we are talking to the government, we’re still not there. We are growing, but not at the pace we want. I think the potential in Jordan is huge. At the end of 2016 we had 2000 drivers, now we have more than that. But it’s still not even close to where we want to be; we want to be huge. In Cairo we have 70,000 drivers, which is massive. You don’t have the same dynamics that you have here; we see potential here which is why we’re talking to the government. Many of our teams are traveling from abroad to put more time and effort in Amman because we really see the potential here.

Do you face similar problems in other countries in the region?

It’s no secret that these discussions that we have now with the government happened in Egypt two years ago, same discussions with taxis and government, and in Saudi before that. But I think today we’ve been able to move in most of these countries. In the UAE we signed with the Road Transport Authority two weeks ago [under] the new regulation for transport through technology apps. We signed the new licensing model and we’re going to work together on cheap transportation. And I think cheap transportation is something that’s very important for us because our vision for Uber for the future is to replace car ownership. There is a big misconception that a lot of people have; they think that we are more of a competitor to the taxis or public transportation, which is not the reality. Today what I can tell you for a fact is that across the Middle East most of our consumers were not consumers of taxis, they were taking their own cars. This is more a reality especially if you look at Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Amman. Today they say you know what, I have this reliable, safe and convenient mode of transport so I will use it. And I think that as we continue in this track we want to continue reducing our prices to be able to provide this reliable transportation to everyone. And this vision has been applied in the United States where we are very cheap, we’re doing the same thing in Cairo and hopefully we’ll do the same thing in Amman.

What is cheap transportation and how can it contribute to solving the transportation issues in a city like Amman?

I think Uber can be complementary to existing needs of transportation. Congestion is a big issue that you have, and I think across the Middle East this is a problem that we face. And going back to the initial thought of cheap transportation, what we want to get is Uber pool. Today you take Uber from one area to another, you go alone. If there’s somebody else going to the same direction you can pool. So instead of having two cars on the road you will have one. And we already have this product in London, Paris and LA. It will be cheaper for you and you will have less cars on the road. It’s similar to a servees with an added layer of safety because everybody on the system is rated. We don’t have it anywhere in the Middle East yet but to be able to get there we need to get to scale. We can’t do it with 2000 drivers so I think it will take time to get there but eventually we’ll be able to reduce cars on the road and reduce car ownership, which also reduces parking spaces.

You said you were not competing with the yellow taxi, but they believe otherwise. What do you think is a fair solution for both of you?

We want to be licensed and we need to be licensed. The argument that the taxi would give you is that they need to pay their fees which is a reality. During the licensing model we want to pay fees and we want the drivers to pay fees. This is a fair solution. The fair solution is for us to create a licensing model that is easy to get and very accessible to everyone.

I understand where the yellow taxi drivers are coming from, but we got to this point because this taxi industry was created in a very bad way. Not only here but in 90 percent of the countries that I worked in; if you look at the taxi license plate or the money that the government is taking it’s nothing, but it’s the black market where people want to make money out of it. So we need to break boundaries. People need to be able to move in a city cheaply. It should be as simple as that.

How big are you compared to Careem in the region?

We’re definitely the leading app. In Jordan we still need to grow. But across the region and globally we are the app that is investing the most in its technology. From the basic things like forward dispatching, Uber pool, or driverless cars these are concepts that require a lot of research and technology and I think we’re definitely at the forefront of pushing this technology. Second in the region I think we’re the dominant player. We’ve been pushing very hard, we’re quite big here. I can’t share numbers but I’m sure we are the platform of choice.

What sets us apart from Careem is the technology. The drivers a lot of the time may be the same, but I think the technology is what differentiates us like face recognition systems that recognize the driver when he starts working in the morning. At least you know that the driver behind the wheel is the driver who is coming to pick you up. Then we have upfront pricing, which we recently rolled out in Jordan. When you order an Uber you will give it a destination and it will give you how much the trip will cost. We also have something called forward dispatching; you’re in a car and you’re getting to your destination then somebody close by orders an Uber. The driver will be informed to pick up this new customer once they drop off the customer already in the car. The driver will always have somebody in the car instead of stopping and waiting and not making money.

So it’s the technology that differentiates us from any other competitor.

Will you allow electric cars to join your fleet?

Yes, why not. It’s definitely a great move. I think today the reality is that we need cars to abide by safety standards. It needs to have airbags, four doors, to be a 2013 model or newer and in a good condition.

What about driverless cars?

We have a pilot project in Pittsburg. The reality is that driverless cars are still in the testing phase. And I think for us to get to driverless cars there’s a lot to be done on the regulation front. I think the technology is moving very fast, but the regulation is moving a bit slow. If today we can’t get regulation for normal Ubers, imagine driverless cars. It will continue to be tested and when we feel that the regulation and the time are right we will start expanding globally.

Careem said last year that they wanted to expand their fleet by 10,000 cars by 2018. What about Uber?

Even more than that. We don’t want to stop at a particular number, we really want to provide this transportation option to everyone. If this means 10,000 then 10,000, if it means 50,000 then 50,000. I think there’s no real limit to the number of people we want, we just want to get to a proper regulatory place with the government so that we can start pushing and getting more people in the platform.

Your founder was in hot water last week for being on a Donald Trump council. Did that affect your operations in the region?

I think it was a controversial topic. A lot of people discussed it, but today we’re in a better place and today he came up with a couple of statements. It’s behind us now and we’re moving towards the future.

Also safety is a major issue in the Arab world where traditions play a major role in people’s daily lives. How’s Uber tackling that?

Every driver that joins Uber today will go through an interview process, we take all their licenses, pictures, and we do a vehicle inspection. Before you even enter the Uber car you know that the driver and the car were vetted in a way. Also during your trip you have the safety features, which include the driver’s name, their picture and plate number, and during the trip you can share your destination and location with your friends and family. After that you have the rating system and when you rate the driver badly, if their overall rating is below 4.6, we will ask for a retraining. I think it’s a whole 360 view from before you take the trip to after you take the trip.

We have a handful of female drivers. But we are really trying to push for more.