Foreigners will no longer be allowed to work in Saudi Arabia's numerous lavish shopping malls, the labour ministry announced Thursday, in the latest measure to boost employment among the kingdom's local population.
The Gulf state has intensified efforts to develop more jobs for its citizens under a wide-ranging drive that began last year in an attempt to diversify the oil-dependent economy.
Known as Vision 2030, the plan calls for development of non-oil industries, small and medium enterprises, and a broader investment base.
"The Minister of Labour and Social Development issues a decision restricting the work in malls across the kingdom to only Saudi men and women," the ministry said on Twitter.
The ministry said the recruitment process would see some changes, including offering vacancies to Saudi citizens only for a number of days before opening it up to foreign workers.
It is the latest step aimed at boosting local employment in a country where expatriates do everything from cleaning the streets, to waiting on tables and providing management expertise.
The move would increase the number of vacancies in the National Employment Portal and give priority to Saudi citizens in order to reduce the unemployment rate to 9 percent by 2020 and increase the participation rate of women in the labour market to 30 percent.
About nine million foreigners worked in the kingdom at the end of 2015, according to latest official figures.
Saudis have traditionally preferred jobs in the public sector, where hours are shorter and leave is longer, but the government is trying to cut its payroll.
The private sector employs some 10.4 million employees, including 1.7 million Saudis, representing 16 percent of the total workforce.
It has for years offered incentives for companies to employ more Saudis and sanctioned those which did not meet targets.
Online, reactions to the latest development seemed overwhelmingly positive and calls were made for the rule to be implemented in businesses outside of malls.
Translation: An important decision. We've waited a long time for this. I hope it includes all retail sectors, even outside malls.
Translation: The youth of both sexes must be empowered and rehabilitated in order to create diverse employment opportunities in different sectors of business.
Translation: An important first step toward returning Saudi Arabia to Saudis.
Under new measures, the monthly fees paid by those who hire more foreign workers than Saudis will be increased, and in July the government plans to impose a levy on foreign workers with dependents, according to a government document seen by Bloomberg News.
In the third quarter of last year the unemployment rate for Saudi females was 34.5 percent, compared with 5.7 percent for Saudi males, figures cited by the firm Jadwa Investment showed.