Yemenis, who relied on jobs in Saudi Arabia to support themselves and their families, say the recent campaign to tighten control over foreign labourers has been a shock.
Deported Yemenis 'thrown into trucks like sheep' in Saudi foreign labour crackdown
SANAA // For Yemenis who relied on jobs in Saudi Arabia to support themselves and their families back home, the recent campaign by Saudi authorities to tighten its control over foreign labourers has been an unwelcome shock.
Some of the thousands of Yemenis deported from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks said they were treated as criminals in a crackdown that began in January.
Saudi Arabia on Saturday ordered a three-month delay on the deportations that have already resulted in 200,000 foreign workers being removed from the country in recent months.
The announcement has offered some hope for an estimated 300,000 who were facing deportation, according to Yemen's ministry of expatriate affairs.
With an unemployment rate among Saudis at more than 12 per cent, the kingdom is seeking to reduce the number of foreign workers. But the economic fallout is expected to hit countries that supply the foreign workers. None more so than its southern neighbour Yemen, which has more than a million workers in Saudi Arabia.
In Sanaa, Yemenis view the deportations as an attack against their nation rather than an attempt to enforce tougher visa regulations.
Under Saudi law, expatriates have to be sponsored by an employer, but many switch jobs without transferring their residency papers. Saudi's council of ministers said last month that it was illegal for employees to work for anyone other than their visa sponsor.
Those that have arrived back in Yemen say their compatriots in Saudi Arabia are living in fear. They are worried the police will raid their home or workplace, arrest and deport them without any chance to explain their situation.
"We were treated as slaves or criminals. Thrown into trucks and then thrown out of them," said Abdullah Al Qubati, 27, a plumber who was deported two weeks ago. He said his residency visa was cut in half by police and he was given only two hours to pack before being forced to leave.
Moeen Al Bashiri, a labourer deported last month after living in Dammam for five years, described being "thrown into a truck like sheep".
"Yemen should follow the same strategy with Saudi nationals living in the country," he said.
Yemen's unemployment rate is 42 per cent, according to the ministry of civil services, making it the highest on the Arabian Peninsula. That, coupled with the peninsula's lowest GDP, means Yemen will not be able to absorb the returning workers.
Economists say the effect will be catastrophic for a country that has a projected budget deficit this year of Dh11.6 billion and is seeking billions of dollars in aid to overcome financial and security challenges.
"The Yemeni economy will collapse and in return the entire region's economic situation will be in danger," said Yahya Al Madwami, a financial analyst in Sanaa. "Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the leg by handicapping the Yemeni economy."
Anger over the treatment of Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia has led to demonstrations, with thousands protesting in front of the Saudi Embassy in Sanaa last week.
Politicians have also seized on the row, saying the deportations are the latest example of Saudi Arabia's patronage over Yemen's politics.
Yemen, where Arab Spring protests forced its autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down last year, is currently mapping out its political future through a national dialogue. This has seen some political factions questioning Yemen's relationship with its neighbour.
Saudi Arabia "is purposely hurting the Yemeni people and this is not acceptable", said Ahmed Al Bahri, a leader of the opposition Haq Party. The party has strong links with Shiites across the region, mainly Hizbollah and Iran. "An independent foreign policy for Yemen is our goal and that will break the Saudi influence in the region."
Houthis, Shiite rebels suspected of links to Iran with tens of thousands of fighters, are using Saudi Arabia's new policy to affirm their rhetoric: that Saudi Arabia is seeking to weaken and destabilise Yemen to remain the only superpower in the region.
A Yemeni delegation is expected to hold talks with Saudi officials in Riyadh next week in an attempt to defuse tensions and give Yemeni workers a chance to "rectify their legal situations".
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said the deportations would be halted for three months to allow workers in breach of their regulations to "clarify their status".
Yemen's minister of expatriate affairs, Mujahid Al Kohali, said last week he hoped to find a compromise with Riyadh that would not involve the deportation of hundreds of thousands of nationals.
In 1990, nearly two million Yemeni labourers were deported from Saudi Arabia almost overnight when Mr Saleh supported Iraq during the First Gulf War.
* With additional reporting by Reuters