Nearly all the women I met during my November trip to Jeddah were heavy users of Uber or its Dubai-based competitor, Careem. The advent, in 2014, of car services that can be requested through mobile apps has given women a freedom of movement that had seemed impossible just months earlier. The long, sweltering waits for drivers, which had been a daily feature in the lives of educated, middle-class Saudi women—whose families didn’t restrict their movements on principle—vanished, along with driver drama, in all its various, much discussed forms: drivers who spied and reported to fathers and brothers; drivers whose services had to be shared with sisters; drivers who refused to stop and ask for directions, despite the fact that many Saudi streets are unmarked.
Saudis do not work in many service jobs, including as Uber drivers. Oddly—or perhaps conveniently, given Saudi Arabia’s dependence on foreign labor—the company of foreign workers of the opposite sex, particularly those from developing countries, is an unofficial but widely tolerated exception to the prohibition against gender mixing. A Saudi woman may ride in an Uber car driven by a man from Pakistan, and a Saudi man may have his breakfast served by a housemaid from the Philippines. But the same degree of proximity with another Saudi, or a Westerner—or, for that matter, a white-collar worker from a developing country—of the opposite gender would be unthinkable.
–Katherine Zoepf, “Sisters in Law,” The New Yorker