Careem, a Middle Eastern rival to Uber, has become the first ride-hailing firm to operate in the West Bank.
Dubai-based Careem, whose name is a play on the Arabic word for generous or noble, launched in Ramallah in June, aiming to bring digital simplicity to the Palestinian territory.
There is certainly a market for easier ride-hailing among the nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, but the fact the mobile network is still 2G, that electronic payments are not the norm and that Israeli checkpoints are common, make using the service somewhat cumbersome.
Yet Careem is optimistic about the potential.
“We are planning to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars within the coming year in the [Palestinian] sector,” said Kareem Zinaty, operations manager for the Levant region. “After the investment, it is also an opportunity to create jobs.”
Careem, which launched in 2012 and now operates in 12 countries and more than 80 cities across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, has said it aims to provide work for 1 million people across the region by 2018. Earlier this week the company said it bought a minority stake in a three-month-old Egyptian start-up that connects commuters with private buses in Cairo. Swvl, founded in April by a former Careem executive, is a bus transportation service where passengers can reserve and pay their fare through the company’s mobile app.
While a version of Uber and Israeli app Gett already operate in Israel, they do not venture into Palestinian territory. Drivers are excited to work with Careem, which they hope will help boost their incomes, especially with unemployment in the West Bank running at nearly 20%.
“It’s a very wonderful opportunity,” said one of the more than 100 new drivers, known as “captains” by Careem, who asked not to be identified. “Most of the people who use it are young and happy with the price.”
Palestinians have limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, which they want for a future state including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war. It withdrew from the interior of Gaza in 2005, but still exerts military control over the Strip from without while occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Careem’s drivers have Palestinian license plates, meaning they usually cannot enter Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where Palestinian Authority officials are not present.
In 2015, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to expand 3G mobile access to the West Bank by 2016, but have yet to implement the agreement. In the meantime, the Ramallah municipality has set up public wifi in parts of the city center, allowing apps like Careem to be used more easily.
Despite 2G’s slower service, Zinaty said their model allowed telecoms companies to look into expanding services and technologies to better serve Palestinian startups and businesses.