By Angus McDowall and Marwa Rashad
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi businessmen, expatriates and several countries welcomed a four-month extension to an amnesty for foreign workers with visa violations on Wednesday, saying it allowed businesses to operate as usual in the world's top oil exporter.
Saudi Arabia has moved to crack down on its large expatriate worker population to try to improve unemployment figures among Saudis and a ban on tolerating workers with visa violations was due to come into force on Wednesday.
But King Abdullah decided on Tuesday to postpone the crackdown until November 3 because of requests from foreign embassies and Saudi businessmen, state media reported.
"I was hoping for even one more month extension," said an Egyptian worker who declined to be named.
He like many other people in Saudi Arabia were working for companies which were not their official sponsor. Others do jobs not listed on their residence permit.
"I have transferred my sponsorship but one last procedure remained that I couldn't finish before the deadline, which is a change of profession ... Thank God we have enough time now," the worker said.
The Labor Ministry said on Tuesday more than 1.6 million people had managed to rectify their status during the amnesty which began in April. Passport officials said 180,000 visa violators had left the country without having to pay fines.
Saudi Arabia has turned a blind eye to minor violations of its strict Labor regulations for decades, allowing a flood of cheap imported Labor used by both local companies and as domestic workers in private households.
The crackdown was intended to open jobs for Saudis in a country with an official unemployment rate of 12 percent. The Labor ministry has said that 600,000 Saudis have found work as a result of sweeping Labor reforms it introduced last year.
But the ban overwhelmed government offices and foreign consulates called on to change the status of thousands of workers, who were forced to queue for hours in sweltering heat. Many had lost their passports or fallen off official records while others had not completed their paperwork in time.
English-language daily Arab News quoted consuls from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines, which supply workers to the Gulf, welcoming the extension of the amnesty.
"We had some problems transferring all the people working for us to our own sponsorship because it will affect our localization quota," said the manager of an engineering company who declined to be named.
"The decision is very positive. The queues seemed endless and you could see them everywhere in Riyadh, standing under this heat for days."
(Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Elizabeth Piper)