Illegal foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, mostly Asians, are in a race against time to take advantage of an amnesty ending tomorrow that will allow them to stay or return home without prosecution.
King Abdullah announced the amnesty on April 3, granting foreign workers three months to regularise their residency or leave the oil-rich Gulf monarchy to avoid being blacklisted or jailed and fined.
More than 1.5 million illegal foreign workers came forward during the first two months of the amnesty, the labour ministry said. It did not say how many illegal foreign workers are still in the kingdom, but the number is reported to be about two million.
Of these, 180,000 have left, in addition to more than 200,000 unregistered workers expelled at the start of the year under new regulations to stamp out illegal immigration.
Many workers were queueing outside their embassies to obtain documents to either leave Saudi Arabia or legalise their status before tomorrow's deadline.
As in most Gulf states, foreigners in Saudi Arabia need to be sponsored by a local business to obtain entry and work permits.
Foreigners desperate to work in the country are willing to pay for sponsorship, and sponsoring expatriates has become a lucrative business for some Saudis.
But under the new rules, workers can be employed only by their own sponsors.
Sharon, a Filipino maid, stood queueing in the scorching heat outside her country's embassy in Riyadh. "I'm trying to renew my passport as I am desperate to find an employer to sponsor me and keep me in the kingdom," she said. "I've provided fingerprints and obtained a travel document, in case I don't get my passport ready in time."
In Jeddah, the commercial capital, Indonesian worker Ali Rahman stood outside Jakarta's consulate, desperately waiting to finalise his documents.
"I've lost hope unless the amnesty is extended to after July 3," he said. "There are still hundreds of us waiting here for consular formalities. And once completed, the paperwork has to go to the immigration authorities and the labour ministry."
Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, is a goldmine for millions of people from poor Asian and Arab countries where unemployment is high.
According to official statistics, eight million expatriates work in the kingdom.
The new labour ministry regulations aim to reduce the number of foreign workers to create jobs for millions of unemployed Saudis. Although the country has the largest Arab economy, its unemployment rate is 12.5 per cent.
Economic analyst Fadhl al-Bouainain said the move would benefit both Saudis and foreign workers. "This will help reorganise the labour market to promote the work of Saudis and protect foreign workers from the abuse of sponsors," he said.