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Careem, a Middle East Uber rival, calls its drivers ‘captains’. Here’s why

Careem, a ride hailing app similar to Uber based in the Middle East, calls its drivers "captains". It might seem like a trivial point, but it underlines the company's focus on understanding the local markets in which it operates to stay ahead.

Founded in 2012, the start-up operates in 27 cities across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and raised $60 million in November. But it faces a threat from Uber, which has raised a total of over $14 billion to-date.

But Careem's founders are confident that its local expertise will allow it to grow a big business and it all starts with the drivers, or "captains".

"Most of our captains, they come from relatively humble backgrounds and many of them particularly in the Gulf, have come from outside of the Gulf, here to work … and in many cases they haven't got the training or the education how to do their job in the best of ways," Magnus Olsson, co-founder of Careem, told CNBC in a TV interview.

"We … believe we have a great product … at the end of the day you're sitting in a car with a captain that drives you, 80, 90 percent of the experience depends on the captain … if we want to have a great experience we need to care for them and make them partners in our success."

Olsson explained that Careem gives the drivers training, listens to them and evolves the product based on their experiences. In some markets, they even offer medical insurance. Mudassir Sheikha, the other co-founder, said that where possible, Careem will offer internships to the families of drivers who are often living in very tough conditions across the region.

"We make sure we look after them," Sheikha said.

Local edge

Careem's focus on its captains highlights a broader focus on understanding the localities in which it operates, hoping that it will give them an edge against Uber as the U.S. rival looks to spend more money in the region.

Olsson said that the company has found favor among female passengers thanks to the safety it offers.

"Across our footprint, particularly in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, feeling safe as a woman when you travel around by yourself is a big deal and we could really support that use case by having tracking of the cars, call center and operations teams that constantly look at the bookings, so you could share your rides with your friends and family," Olsson said.

And it has launched a specific product for kids, which is a fleet of vehicles with pre-installed child seats, to allow people to take their children to school. The company also accepts cash in some markets as bank accounts aren't always widespread in some markets.

Uber threat?

Still the threat from Uber is real. In November, the U.S. ride hailing app said it would spend $250 million to expand into the MENA region. And earlier this month, it closed a $3.5 billion funding round from the Saudi Arabian government's investment arm, to help expand into the region.

But Careem said that the market is so big, both can operate at the same time.

"Yeah you can look at them (Uber) as a competitor but at the same time … we are currently fighting for one-to-two percent of the market … There is so much room to keep growing the market that it really doesn't make any sense to fight over the small share," Sheikha said.