Back seat observations from those who drive us around town.

For the past couple of years, what started as a conversation to kill the boredom, has become a regularity. I now regularly converse with the taxi drivers or Careem captains whenever I am being shuttled from one place to another.

I’ve always felt that these taxi drivers know a thing or two about how things are, so why not tap into this knowledge bank.

Written below are just observation notes. They are footnotes to perhaps more professional journal articles or statistics.

On my recent visit to Dubai, I had the opportunity to take the taxi 11 times, Careem 13 times and the Emirates complimentary car to/from the hotel to the airport twice.

In no particular order, here are some interesting observations:

  • ALL my taxi rides were Pakistanis. 100% of them. Not a single Nepali or Indian taxi driver. All Pakistanis (I think this was a first for me).
  • All the drivers spoke Urdu. How do I know? I would just sit in the car and speak Urdu to them, to see if they replied differently. If they spoke back, then I would ask them where they were from, etc.
  • Two Careem Captains were college educated. One was a Chemical Engineer from Pakistan and one was a Chemistry graduate from Lahore (did not ask which university).
  • Three Careem Captains were doing this part time, because…
    • They get to drive, earn a bit of money
  • Familiarize themselves in/around the town for better opportunities
    • One of them was studying for his IT exam. When I asked more, he sort of became cautious and changed the subject.
    • One of them had a great hack, he asked what I did, if I had any influence in the jobs circle and only if I did, would he like to discuss further. (I told him, I did not have any influence in the local job market).
  • Five of my Careem captains (drivers) spoke kick-ass English!
  • Nearly all of my taxi drivers spoke barely passable English (broken English)
  • Almost all of my taxi drivers didn’t give a fuck about service. I should have been thankful that they were driving me around for the money I was paying.
  • All my taxi drivers were complacent. They pretty much treated it as a government job, which meant, drive rough, not give a shit about the cooling in the car. Go over speed bumps fast. Honk and cut cars/lanes.
  • Every Careem driver was uber-courteous! (couldn’t help but use the word “uber” here!)
  • 4 Careem drivers did not have the requisite cash/change.
  • All the Careem cars were somehow Lexus ES350 (only, later on, I found out why)
  • Not a single Careem driver was a prior taxi driver.
  • All Careem drivers hated taxi drivers.
  • Nearly all taxi drivers hated Uber and Careem drivers, except two, who had other family members driving Careem.
  • All the Careem drivers said the Careem Management should talk to the Dubai Government and get this silly policy of offering luxury cars for Careem (hence the minimum standard of driving around in Lexus ES350) should be abolished and Careem should be able to invest in Toyota Camry’s. If Pakistan can have a Toyota Corolla for Careem, why can’t they in UAE?

On money transfers…

I asked every driver (irrespective of Careem or Taxi or the Emirates car) if they sent money back home. Every one of them said yes: 100% across 26 drivers!

But here is where it gets interesting.

  • Name the company they use to send money across, almost everyone invariably cited UAExchange.
  • One of the reasons UAExchange was preferred over others, was the outreach network, i.e. close proximity to home.
  • No one ever used Western Union or MoneyGram (for normal remittances). In certain emergencies, it was used.
  • How many times do they send money back home?
    • Careem drivers said, once a month, sometimes once every two months.
    • Taxi drivers, every month.

None of the 11 taxi drivers was banked in the UAE, even though some of them have worked here for over 16 years.

With the exception of 3 drivers, almost all the Careem drivers had a bank account. The three drivers who did not have it were very new to this and were figuring out how to go about it (get settled presumably), despite being in the country for long.

None of the Careem or Taxi drivers had a ‘credit’ card.

The average amount transferred. This was a tough one, not sure everyone wanted to open up and tell me.

  • Some Careem Drivers: AED 1,500-2,000 on average.
  • Some Taxi drivers: AED 1,000-3,000
  • In some cases, a Careem driver would transfer in excess of AED 5,000
  • Every Pushto speaking driver (from KPK) utilized hawala/hundi. No one used a regular exchange company no matter who owned it. This was very surprising (not to mention disturbing to learn).

I inquired about the backstory of this. It seems it is simply aiding and abetting the old-age business practice of how money is handled in KPK and the surrounding region. Word of mouth transfers still exists and that too on a very large scale.

Hundi or Hawala is not a local phenomenon. It has been around for 100s of years. Even older is the Chinese hawala called “flying money” (feiqian). Anyhow, I digress.

It is estimated that the GCC has a formal remittance (outgoing) volume of US$ 100 Billion per annum. By varying degrees, it is estimated the informal channel is equated to be between US$ 30 Billion to US$ 100 Billion. No one knows for sure. Various people have tried their best to model it, but it is just that… mathematical models.

The exact number will probably never be known.

When transferring money back home, the price is not an issue (this is something I’ve confirmed before in my previous research). It is always the proximity of the cash-out location with respect to the beneficiary’s home. Gotta be close yo!

Hawala is chosen because rates are better. Usually by 1.50 Rupees to a Dirham, which means that if a person is transferring AED 5,000 this means, Rs. 7,500 worth of difference – which in this social economic class – is a lot of money.

I asked around as to what is the percentage of people who are sending money back home via hawala/hundi versus documented (legal) channels? The answer varies. If I take out the highs and leave the lows, the median average is about 35%. A little more than a 1/3rd of the remittances are snaking their way back to Pakistan, via hawala.

I’m skeptical. I think the number is much higher. Maybe at the 50% mark (if not more).

Just FYI, this phenomenon is not just limited to Pakistan. It is especially true for India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Tanzania and Nigeria (to name a few countries).

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