RIYADH // Every day, hundreds of illegal foreign workers, mostly South Asians, queue in the scorching heat outside an immigration office in the Saudi capital hoping to benefit from an amnesty to get their papers in order or leave the country.
This year, the kingdom warned illegal foreign workers that they risked prison sentences and fines after a three-month grace period runs out on July 3.
Those whose residency permits had expired or who were sponsored by someone other than their actual employers, in violation of labour laws, were also urged to take advantage of the amnesty without penalty.
Tens of thousands of foreigners are affected. More than 200,000, mostly Asians, have been expelled this year due to the new restrictions, immigration officials said.
According to official statistics, eight million expatriates work in the kingdom. Economists say there are another two million unregistered foreign workers.
Ibrahim, an Egyptian, is among those now forced to leave a job in the construction sector after four years and return home because his work permit has expired.
"I arrived here at four o'clock this morning and I'm still waiting for my turn to obtain an exit permit," he said as he stood in line with about 100 other people.
Ibrahim hoped to obtain a document allowing him to leave Saudi Arabia without having to pay a fine or serve time in jail.
He also hoped he would be able to return to Saudi Arabia because, he said, "the situation in Egypt is very bad".
New regulations introduced by the labour ministry aim to reduce the number of foreign workers and create jobs for millions of unemployed Saudis.
Although the kingdom has the largest Arab economy, the unemployment rate among Saudis is more than 12.5 per cent.
Saudi Arabia has warned employers who shelter illegal workers that they could face up to two years in prison if they do not toe the line.
Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis and Yemenis, who work in low-paid jobs across the kingdom, will be worst affected.
The labour minister, Adel Fakih, has admitted that "six million foreign workers are employed in menial jobs unfit for Saudis, and 68 per cent of them are paid less than 1,000 riyals (Dh980) per month."
The majority of Saudis prefer working in the public sector, where they are better paid for shorter working hours and enjoy more holidays.