Government crackdown on expatriate visa regulations leaves many apprehensive
Like many expatriates in Saudi Arabia, Umm Hajar, a 30-year-old Moroccan beautician, stopped going to work two weeks ago fearful of government inspectors checking her residency status.
She has lived in the capital Riyadh with her Egyptian husband for two years, but while they both have residence permits, they are in breach of official regulations because they are not sponsored by their employers.
"I don't want a policeman to cut up my papers," said Umm Hajar, one of more than eight million foreigners in the conservative kingdom's estimated 27 million total population.
"I just want to stay with my husband."
A mood of apprehension has engulfed many expatriates in labour-importing Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, following a government crackdown in March on residents who are not properly registered.
On Saturday King Abdullah announced a three-month amnesty to give foreigners a chance to sort out their papers.
But, with affected workers staying at home to avoid spot inspections, the kingdom's cities are rife with stories of businesses being unable to open.
Under Saudi law, all foreign residents must be sponsored by a Saudi company or individual, who is named on their residency card, known as an iqama.
Now the government has started to enforce a long-disregarded rule that expatriates can work only for their sponsor. The aim is to close a loophole allowing companies to get around strict new quotas that determine how many Saudis they employ.
Riyadh is determined to tackle unemployment by getting more Saudis into private sector jobs where, according to 2011 figures, they only accounted for a tenth of the workforce.
However, Saudis often expect higher pay than expatriates, are harder to fire under local labour laws, and in some cases are not qualified for the jobs on offer or deem them as menial.
As a result, the kingdom has a massive black market for expatriate labour, in which foreign workers are nominally registered to one sponsor but actually work for another.
Most foreign workers come from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Yemen and other Arab countries.
Umm Hajar had already been working at a beauty salon in Jeddah for two years before she met her husband, an Egyptian construction supervisor in Riyadh who is officially registered as a labourer for a different company.
After she returned to Morocco they agreed to marry, but his official status as a labourer does not allow him to sponsor dependents in Saudi Arabia. Through a friend, they found a Saudi who agreed to sponsor her, ostensibly as his maid, in return for a fee of 15,000 riyals ($4,000).
Other expatriates fear any request to change sponsors will not be granted, as the firms they work for do not want to book more foreign workers, or because the profession they want to be registered under is now seen as the preserve of Saudi workers.
Across the country, foreign workers have been exchanging stories of spot inspections and sudden deportations.
The Labour Ministry has denied reports that it is enforcing immediate deportations, but people who lose their official residency status must leave the desert kingdom.
"There are lots of people in my situation. Nine people live in the building where I live and only two of them work with their registered sponsor. The rest work somewhere else," said an Egyptian, who requested anonymity to avoid state reprisal.
Although the tougher approach was unveiled last year, a government announcement in March that it would start applying the rules with spot inspections by the labour and interior ministries caught expatriates and businesses by surprise.
A Lebanese couple in Jeddah are also worried they will lose their residence permits because the wife, who is listed as her husband's dependent and therefore not eligible to work, has actually been employed as a schoolteacher.
"My wife has been working there for five or six years now. All of a sudden the government came to apply the rules, so we panicked," said the man, in his mid-30s.