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Khurshid in Saudi Arabia as India scrambles to help workers

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid Saturday discussed bilateral issues, including the Nitaqat law, with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Saud Al Faisal as the Indian missions there scrambled to help over 55,000 Indian workers leave the kingdom in adherence to its new stringent work policy.

Addressing a joint press conference with his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Khurshid thanked the Saudi kingdom for "the concessions that Saudi Arabia announced for expatriate workers to correct their status or return to their country without penal action".

He said Indians are the most preferred community in Saudi Arabia due to their hard work and discipline. "I pointed out the contributions of Indian Diaspora in the economic growth of India and emphasised the importance we attach to the welfare of the Indians abroad," Khurshid said.

The Indian minister's visit comes when the Indian Embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah and other centres in Dammam and the Eastern Province have issued a second lot of 27,000 Emergency Certificates to enable Indian citizens to leave Saudi Arabia for home due to the Nitaqat policy.

The kingdom last month announced a three-month grace period, which expires July 3, after which they will begin to deport illegal workers.

Under Nitaqat, it is mandatory for local companies to hire one Saudi national for every 10 migrant workers. Over 300,000 firms in Saudi Arabia reportedly do not employ any locals and the Nitaqat policy seeks to deal firmly with this.

The new law also makes it mandatory for foreigners to only work for their legal sponsors, and their spouses can't take up jobs. The expatriates cannot perform any job other than the one mentioned in their job cards - a rule which many Indians were flouting.

There are currently 2.8 million Indian workers in Saudi Arabia.

Before leaving for Jeddah, Khurshid had said over 56,700 Indians are being repatriated from Saudi Arabia in the next one and half months as they have no valid passports and legal permits to stay in the kingdom.

"As of now 56,700 Indian have registered with the Indian Mission for getting exit permit as they have no valid passports or other travel documents," Khurshid Friday told a group of Urdu editors in New Delhi.

The number is expected to grow.

On May 21, Indian Ambassador Hamid Ali Rao met the Saudi Deputy Minister for Interior Ahmed Al Salem during which they discussed the welfare of the Indian workers, including facilities for immigration and 'exit' for Indian nationals.

The Indian embassy has also roped in a large number of Indians as volunteers to man the help desks in various cities of Saudi Arabia, especially for translation and interpretation work.

In his address, Khurshid said India regards Saudi Arabia as one of its most valued strategic partners. He also said he was carrying a personal message from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for King Abdullah.

Both sides held talks on a number of bilateral, regional and multilateral issues of common and mutual interest. They reviewed the progress in implementation of the Delhi Declaration and Riyadh Declaration and "expressed satisfaction at the state of our bilateral relationship and discussed ways and means to further strengthen the strategic partnership", he said.

He also expressed satisfaction at the progress in their defence and security relations. "The visit of Defence Minister (Antony) in February last year, the first by an Indian defence minister, and the exchange of other defence delegations have contributed in strengthening our defence and security engagement", he said.

Both sides also discussed the menace of terrorism the world continues to face and agreed to further strengthen their counter-terrorism cooperation. They also discussed regional issues, including Syria.