Saudi Arabia’s Labour Ministry has said that more than 1 million people are now claiming unemployment benefit after King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud decided to introduce the stipend last year.

The introduction of the Hafiz programme, which pays unemployed Saudis SR2,000 ($533) a month for up to one year, was announced in mid-2011 as part of a wave of measures aimed at alleviating poverty and trying to ensure that popular protests around the region did not take root in the kingdom.

Unemployment benefits started to be paid in December, according to the Labour Ministry, and enrolment in the programme has since risen sharply. The number of beneficiaries rose by 170 per cent from December.

As part of the Hafiz scheme those claiming the benefit are put on a new database that the government uses to try to match them with job vacancies.

The government says the unemployment figure is 10.5 per cent, but this is thought to significantly underestimate the full extent of the joblessness problem.

Hafiz has been launched alongside a new quota system for the employment of expatriates, called Nitaqat. This penalised firms that did not hire a certain proportion of locals by preventing them for renewing the visas of foreign workers.