Saudi authorities and migrant workers, mostly from east Africa, have clashed on Saturday in a southern district of Riyadh — the violence being attributed to the enforcement of the government’s Nitaqat policy geared towards expanding employment opportunities for Saudi nationals.

The Saudi daily Arab News is reporting that violence broke out when a group of men, angered by the Kingdom’s campaign against illegal expatriate workers, went on a rampage in Riyadh’s southern district of Manfouha on Saturday night. The area is mostly occupied by poor migrant workers, mainly from east Africa. Two people, including one Saudi national, were killed when riot police responded to attacks by expats with rocks, knives and sticks. Police fired shots in the air and used truncheons to disperse the large crowds. Another 68 people, including 28 Saudis and 40 foreigners were injured during the violence, which also led to 561 arrests.

The government has launched its drive to round up those who have been staying illegally following the expiry of a seven month amnesty that allowed expatriates, mostly in the blue collar category, to either shift jobs or leave the country, without paying a penalty. Under Saudi laws, those individuals who overstay the duration of their visas or work for someone else, other than their official sponsor, are considered illegal.

The seven month grace period had been provided on account of the displacement of expatriate workers that was caused by the enforcement of the Nitaqat policy, which demands that at least 10 per cent of the work force in any private enterprise, should be Saudi. Nearly four million expatriates, including one million Indians have managed to find new employers, and around a million have left the country.

Expatriates comprise around one-third of Saudi Arabia’s population of around 27 million.

The Saudis decided to introduce new labour laws to counter the possible fall-out in the Kingdom of the Arab Spring, where youth unemployment had become the major cause of political uprisings, which toppled many regimes in the region.

Observers say that authorities are trying to tighten their vigil, but in the past, a large number of migrants from neighbouring African countries have entered the Kingdom through a relatively porous Saudi-Yemen border. Since many have arrived without the required documents, they have found it difficult to either find new jobs, or manage a legal exit from the country during the amnesty period.

AFP is quoting the Ethiopian government as saying that arrangements were being made to repatriate citizens who had missed the amnesty deadline.

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