Almost two weeks after Saudi Arabia started deporting thousands of foreign workers in a crackdown that drew protests from local business owners and foreign diplomats, Saudi officials have reversed course and announced a three-month grace period for the workers, the official Saudi news agency says.
In late March, Saudi officials announced tough measures, including deportation, for foreigners found to be violating the work-visa sponsorship system. The statement on Saturday said workers now had three months to conform with the new regulations.
It was not immediately clear whether workers who had already been deported - including up to 20,000 from Yemen - would be allowed to return.
Saudi officials have framed the crackdown as part of an effort to reduce the country's staggering youth unemployment rate. Private-sector jobs are overwhelmingly occupied by the kingdom's 10 million foreign workers.
In November, the government started penalising private companies that hired more foreigners than Saudi citizens as part of a plan to create 6 million new jobs for Saudis by 2030.
The policy also reflects fears of political instability among the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which have combined inducements with repression to contain the discontent among young people that helped propel the Arab uprisings more than two years ago.
Officials in Kuwait also recently announced a policy to reduce its high proportion of expatriate workers over the next decade.
After the crackdown was announced, some Saudi employers reported that their businesses had been raided and employees fearful of the authorities were staying away from work. A lawyer in Saudi Arabia said ''an army of women law enforcers'' had descended on women-only shops and salons to find people breaking the law.
At one of the country's largest ports, Jeddah, workers said the handling of shipments had slowed because most of the port's foreign workers were staying at home, the Saudi Gazette reported. Workers told the newspaper the labour force had dwindled to about 200 workers from more than 1000 before the announcement.
Yemen, the region's poorest country, was perhaps hardest hit by the policy. A reported 18,000 to 20,000 Yemenis have been deported from Saudi Arabia since the crackdown started. The deportations led to protests in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, last week.