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Ride-sharing app forced off road in West Bank

Only five months after the launch of the Dubai-based ride-sharing app Careem in the West Bank, the company announced that the Palestinian Authority had halted its services.

The company behind the ride-sharing app Careem announced in a brief statement on Facebook on Nov. 5 that it had halted services in Ramallah. The company, which began operations in the West Bank on June 13, said that this is the first time that it appears it will have to permanently cease activities in the Arab world.

“We launched our services based on our belief in Palestine — a country that calls for investment and development — and we hope that the authorities will feel how the sudden halt in our services affects citizens, workers and the promotion of Palestine as a beacon for foreign investments,” the company said in its statement. “We want to work hand in hand with all the competent authorities in order to revive the two transport and IT sectors and create more job opportunities.”

Ibrahim Manna, director of emerging markets at Dubai-based Careem, told Al-Monitor that Palestinian Authority officials had deemed Careem's operation illegal. “When an investor or application is found illegal, this puts the freedom and safety of its employees or contractors at stake,” he said. The company is accused of contracting drivers whose vehicles are not licensed to transport people in exchange for a fee.

Manna added, “As an investment company, and before we started providing our services, we got a license from the Palestinian Ministry of Economy, and we got all the necessary approvals, but the problem was with the private [unlicensed] cars. We contracted private cars because taxi drivers, supported by their union, rejected the idea of taximeters, but refraining from using them is illegal. What made matters worse was that the taxi drivers who agreed to work with us were threatened with being stripped of their licenses by their union. In other words, we had no alternative but to work with private cars.”

Regular taxis on the West Bank are supposed to be metered, but drivers don't use the meters because they would lower the fares the drivers collect. Given their aversion to taximeters, the drivers also refused to use meters for the ride-sharing service.

Manna argued that the Ministry of Transport and Communications should be neutral and work toward helping the company and taxi drivers find common ground so residents can take advantage of cheaper fares.

In the city of Ramallah alone, about 200 drivers worked for Careem as “captains,” that is, drivers, according to Mohammed Yahya, a Careem driver. Yahya, a Ramallah resident, told Al-Monitor that he began working as a driver for Careem on the first day the company offered its services in the West Bank. He said he met all the terms and conditions, as he has the two required licenses — one to operate a commercial vehicle and one to drive.

Yahya asserted, “Even the vice president of the Association of Taxi Owners in the West Bank used the service, and this proves that the prices offered by Careem are better than the regular taxi prices. When we realized who he was, we asked him why he chose Careem instead of a regular taxi. He said that to go from his house to work, it cost him about 23 to 25 shekels [about $6.50 to $7] in a regular taxi, but with Careem, the cost went down to about 15 to 17 shekels [about $4.25 to $4.85].”

Although Careem says its work is legal in the West Bank and that it has fulfilled all the requirements, Mohammed Hamdan, spokesman for the Ministry of Transport and Communications, says otherwise.

“The Ministry of Transport and Communications did not issue any decisions to halt Careem's services, but it viewed the company as a platform that facilitates the violation of [Palestinian traffic] law,” Hamdan told Al-Monitor. “We clearly stated that Careem must abide by the laws in force in Palestine and must use vehicles licensed to transport passengers in return for a fee. We talked to the company's officials accordingly, but they insisted on violating Palestinian Traffic Law No. 5 of 2000.”

Article 8 of the law stipulates that the registration of a public car or bus requires a passenger transport license. This is reinforced by Article 59, which states that a driver cannot transport passengers for pay unless he gets the required license from the licensing authority. Article 88 of the law states that a person who requests a license to operate a passenger transportation office must be registered with the Ministry of Economy, must have a specific number of public vehicles, a headquarters, a convenient parking lot close to the headquarters, an office director and a sufficient number of personnel.

While Careem obtained the required license from the Ministry of Economy to operate as a passenger transportation company, it violated the law after so many taxi drivers refused to work with it and it had to turn to drivers lacking cars licensed for transport.

According to Hamdan, West Bank residents had welcomed Careem because of regular taxi drivers’ non-compliance with taximeters. This practice results in higher fares, because the drivers impose whatever fare they please. Hamdan pointed out that the traffic police have started a campaign to punish taxi drivers who do not use taximeters by imposing a fine of 300 shekels [$85].

Careem’s decision to halt its services sparked anger among some Palestinians. Mahmoud Haribat, a journalist and activist from Ramallah, said in a Facebook post Nov. 6, “Just an observation: Taxi offices and drivers have played a key role in instigating, insulting, cursing and even hitting the Careem drivers. They got what they wanted. Now it’s time for us to claim our right, and whoever takes a regular cab should ask the driver to run the taximeter.”

Many West Bank residents have used a hashtag that translates #RunTheTaximeter to protest the halt in Careem’s services, which had saved them money. As far as the taxi drivers are concerned, the difference between the prices charged by Careem and those charged by the taxis stem from a failure of government control.

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