Why Saudi women driving is a small step forward, not a great one

Robin Wright writes: On a scorching day in August, 2006, Wajeha al-Huwaider threw off her abaya, the enveloping black cover worn by Saudi women, and donned a calf-length pink shirt, pink trousers, and a matching pink scarf. She then took a taxi, from Bahrain, to a signpost on the bridge marking the border with Saudi Arabia. She got out and, with a large poster declaring, “Give Women Their Rights,” marched toward her homeland. Within twenty minutes, she was picked up by Saudi security forces, interrogated for a day, and officially warned. An intelligence officer, she recounted to me later, had pointed at her mouth and said, “Control this, and we won’t have a problem.”

Two years later, on International Women’s Day, Huwaider went out in the Saudi desert and, illegally, drove. She made a three-minute video of it—coaching women to claim their rights—and posted it on YouTube. “The problem of women driving, of course, is not political,” she said, as the car bumped along a rural road. “Nor is it religious. It is a social issue.” The video, in Arabic, was viewed by almost a quarter million people. Thousands more watched with various translations. Again, she got in trouble.

Huwaider may finally be able to drive legally next year. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered that women be given licenses. The country is the last in the world—by many, many years—where women are forbidden to drive. In April, Saudi women launched a social media campaign—with the hashtag #Resistancebywalking—that posted films of them walking in the same streets where they can’t drive. The ban has long been a barometer of the oil-rich but ultra-conservative kingdom’s human-rights abuses, constantly referenced in the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report. The shift, on Tuesday, was sufficiently striking that the Times sent out a breaking-news e-mail about the king’s decree.

There are, however, caveats. The ruling will not go into effect until June, 2018. Women may have to get the permission of their male “guardians” to drive, as they do for many major activities in their life. The biggest issue may be winning the approval of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics, the most conservative of the Islamic faith. The decree stipulated that new regulations must “apply and adhere to the necessary Sharia standards,” a reference to Islamic law. What that means was left unanswered. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive next year

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the repression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The change, which will take effect in June of next year, was announced on state television and in a simultaneous media event in Washington. The decision highlights the damage that the no-driving policy has done to the kingdom’s international reputation and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform.

Saudi leaders also hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women’s participation in the workplace. Many working Saudi women spend much of their salaries on drivers or must be driven to work by male relatives. [Continue reading…]

 

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Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable

Jamal Khashoggi writes: When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds, and then I tell you that I’m from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised?

With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform. He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant and promised that he would address the things that hold back our progress, such as the ban on women driving.

But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests. Last week, about 30 people were reportedly rounded up by authorities, ahead of the crown prince’s ascension to the throne. Some of the arrested are good friends of mine, and the effort represents the public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to express opinions contrary to those of my country’s leadership. The scene was quite dramatic as masked security men stormed houses with cameras, filming everything and confiscating papers, books and computers. The arrested are accused of being recipients of Qatari money and part of a grand Qatari-backed conspiracy. Several others, myself included, are in self-exile and could face arrest upon returning home. [Continue reading…]

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The contradictions of hajj, through the lens of a smartphone

Wajahat Ali writes: Is it permissible to take a selfie in front of the Kaaba during hajj? With spotty internet, I was unable to Google the answer. Forced to call an audible fatwa, I decided, “Yes, if indeed my intention is pure.”

Fourteen hundred years ago, the Prophet Muhammad and his companions definitely didn’t have to decide between Clarendon and Gingham filters to document the hajj pilgrimage that is recreated by Muslims each year. But then again, they didn’t have Instagram as I did when I went to Mecca to satisfy the pillar of my faith during the last days of August and the beginning of September. They didn’t have access to the air-conditioned tents that I used for shelter. And when they gazed at the Kaaba — the austere black cube that represents God’s house on earth — it certainly wasn’t dwarfed, as it is now, by the enormous luxury hotel and bling-covered clock tower that the Saudi government added to the landscape in 2012.

Awe-struck by the privilege of participating in this tradition while often agitated by the contradictions that surround it today, I made sense of the experience by sharing it — filtering the pilgrimage through the lens of my smartphone.

The most painful aspect of hajj wasn’t the physical toll that came with navigating cramped space with my two million diverse fellow pilgrims, or the intense spiritual concentration. It wasn’t the hiking-induced blisters and chafing. It was witnessing the erasure and razing of my religion’s culture, history and narrative by the House of Saud. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn promoted nuclear-plant project while in White House

The Wall Street Journal reports: As President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn promoted a controversial private-sector nuclear power plan in the Middle East that had once involved Russian companies, according to former security-council staffers and others familiar with the effort.

While working at the White House, Mr. Flynn advocated for a group of former senior U.S. military officers with whom he had worked while in the private sector. The project, which the former military officers were helping promote on behalf of several U.S. companies, envisions building and operating dozens of nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East, the people familiar with it said.

The sprawling construction project was valued at hundreds of billions of dollars and described as a Marshall Plan for the region, according to the people familiar with it. Mr. Flynn, as a private citizen before entering the White House, had advised U.S. companies that aimed to provide security for the project.

White House disclosure forms indicate that Mr. Flynn’s year-and-a-half work on the project ended in December 2016, but Mr. Flynn in fact remained involved in the project once he joined the Trump administration in January, discussing the plan and directing his National Security Council staff to meet with the companies involved, the former staffers said. [Continue reading…]

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Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

Andrew Cockburn writes: Meeting with the leaders of NATO countries in May, President Trump chastised them sternly for their shortcomings as allies. He took the time, however, to make respectful reference to the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, whom he had just visited at the start of his first overseas trip as president. “I spent much time with King Salman,” he told the glum-looking cluster of Europeans, calling him “a wise man who wants to see things get much better rapidly.”

Some might find this fulsome description surprising, given widespread reports that Salman, who took the throne in January 2015, suffers from dementia. Generally seen wearing a puzzled look, the king has been known to wander off in the middle of conversations, as he reportedly did once while talking with President Obama. When speaking in public, he depends on fast-typing aides whose prompts appear on a discreetly concealed monitor.

Whatever wisdom Trump absorbed from his elderly royal friend, the primary purpose of his trip to Riyadh, according to a former senior U.S. official briefed on the proceedings, was cash — both in arms sales and investments in crumbling American infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, and tunnels. The Trump Administration is “desperate for Saudi money, especially infrastructure investments in the Rust Belt,” the former official told me. An influx of Saudi dollars could generate jobs and thus redound to Trump’s political benefit. As a cynical douceur, the Saudis, derided by Trump during his campaign as “people that kill women and treat women horribly,” joined the United Arab Emirates in pledging $100 million for a women’s-empowerment initiative spearheaded by Ivanka Trump. A joyful president took part in the traditional sword dance and then helped launch a Saudi center for “combating extremism.”

This was not the first time the Saudis had dangled the prospect of massive investments to leverage U.S. support. “Mohammad bin Salman made the same pitch to the Obama people,” the former official told me. “ ‘We’re going to invest all this money here, you’re going to be our great economic partner, etc.’ Because the Trump Administration doesn’t know much about foreign affairs, they were really seduced by this.” [Continue reading…]

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Yemen’s misery calls out for global intervention

In an editorial, the Financial Times says: The civil war in Yemen, which descended into a new circle of hell after Saudi Arabia committed its air force to defeating Houthi rebels in March 2015, is fast destroying what is left of the poorest of Arab nations. Eclipsed by the ostensibly greater geopolitical stakes of the carnage in Iraq and Syria, this ancient country has been largely ignored by the world as its people face catastrophe. Time is running out.

A harrowing report in the Financial Times this week describes the depth of the crisis. The UN says two-thirds of the 28m population face shortages of food and clean water, while a quarter are on the brink of famine. A cholera epidemic is raging. The war itself has killed an estimated 10,000 people.

Saudi Arabia, under Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and the power behind the throne, launched its air war to deter Iran from trying to expand the Shia axis it has forged across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Riyadh exaggerates Iranian support for Yemen’s heterodox Shia Houthi, although Tehran is happy to accept the Sunni kingdom’s inflated estimate of Iran’s political reach.

The Saudis, backed by a United Arab Emirates expeditionary force on the ground, and with episodic US support, have failed to reinstate their client regime, led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. They have not retaken the capital Sana’a from the rag-tag Houthi movement. They have regularly hit hospitals and schools, weddings and funerals, mosques and marketplaces — as well as creating more space for al-Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabian peninsula. While the impetuousness of the Prince is part of the problem, the ruling House of Saud’s historical record with Yemen is comparably disastrous.

The Saudis have used their oil wealth to divide a shifting constellation of actors and tribes, wracked by sectarian and secessionist tensions. Despite the presence of many common tribal links, the Saudis have done little to help the Yemenis build a nation, preferring to finance Wahhabi mosques than modern infrastructure — this, in a country running out of water but awash with guns. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s bid to end Saudi-Qatar stalemate ends in recriminations

The New York Times reports: An attempt by President Trump to break the stalemate that has divided the wealthiest countries in the Middle East ended in failure on Saturday, when leaders from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, after speaking by phone for the first time in months, exchanged dueling, contradictory statements.

Mr. Trump arranged the call, which took place late on Friday, and promised a breakthrough in the bitter dispute that has plunged the Persian Gulf into turmoil and has threatened American security interests.

Since June, Saudi Arabia has led the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain in imposing a punishing trade and transport boycott against tiny, gas-rich Qatar, accusing it of financing terrorism and having overly cozy relations with Iran. Qatar has rejected the charges, countering that its rivals are seeking to curb its sovereignty and tame its influential television channel Al Jazeera.

Mr. Trump stepped into the frame this past week, offering his services as a mediator and predicting a quick victory.

“I think you’d have a deal worked out very quickly,” he said at the White House on Thursday, standing alongside the emir of Kuwait, who has led Arab efforts to end the standoff.

But Friday’s phone call between the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, seemed to underscore only how hard it might be to settle the angry, often petty, dispute. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab autocracy trap

Shlomo Ben-Ami writes: It has been more than six years since the start of the Arab Spring, and life for most Arabs is worse than it was in 2011. Unemployment is rife in the Middle East and North Africa, where two thirds of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29. And throughout the region, regimes have closed off channels for political expression, and responded to popular protests with increasing brutality.

The governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, Morocco, epitomize Arab regimes’ seeming inability to escape the autocracy trap – even as current circumstances suggest that another popular awakening is imminent.

Egypt offers a classic example of how revolution often ends in betrayal. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship is even more violent than that of Hosni Mubarak, the strongman whose 30-year rule was ended by the 2011 uprising. With the help of a police force that he himself describes as a “million-man mafia,” Sisi has made repression the paramount organizing principle of his regime.

It would be a Herculean feat for anyone to reform Egypt’s economy so that it benefits the country’s 95 million people (plus the two million added every year). And it is a task that Egypt’s leaders cannot avoid, because the social contract of the Mubarak years, whereby Egyptians traded freedom for an expansive welfare state and generous subsidies, is no longer sustainable. [Continue reading…]

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Qatar restores diplomatic ties with Iran despite demands by Arab neighbors

The Washington Post reports: Qatar said Thursday it has restored diplomatic relations with Iran, marking a further break with Arab nations that have joined against Qatar for its links to Islamist groups and others perceived by U.S. allies as regional threats.

The decision ignores demands by Qatar’s neighbors — led by Saudi Arabia — to limit ties with Tehran and threatens to deepen the region’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades, which has complicated Washington’s policies in the Middle East.

Qatar hosts U.S. warplanes at a major air base and serves as a logistical hub for Pentagon operations.

“The State of Qatar expressed its aspiration to strengthen bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran in all fields,” Qatar’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The brief statement made no mention of the tensions that have roiled the Persian Gulf since June, when Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations severed ties with Qatar. The Arab bloc shut down borders, airspace, and shipping lanes after accusing the tiny, energy-rich nation of backing terrorism for ties with groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. [Continue reading…]

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To Iran’s dismay, Iraq engages Saudi Arabia

Al Monitor reports: Pictures displaying Iran’s Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani during the battles with the Islamic State stopped circulating online with the military phase that ended in the liberation of Mosul. The Iranian presence and support for the Iraqi forces were absent in the liberation battles.

Simultaneously, Iraqi officials visited Saudi Arabia and Arab Sunni states that cheer for the Saudi axis. Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Aug. 13-15, with clerics and politicians welcoming him as an Iraqi leader. Prominent Sunni Iraqi cleric Ahmed al-Kubaisi and leading politicians met with Sadr during his visit to the UAE. This was only a few days after his visit at the end of July to Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials had welcomed him.

In the wake of the visit, Saudi Arabia took various measures in favor of Iraq, such as announcing the opening of a Saudi Consulate in Najaf, where Sadr lives. Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, did not object to this proposition, as in the past he had called for openness in relations. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen cholera epidemic: Cases exceed 500,000 in four months

BBC News reports: The number of suspected cases of cholera resulting from an epidemic in war-torn Yemen has reached 500,000, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

At least 1,975 people have died since the waterborne disease began to spread rapidly at the end of April.

The WHO said the overall caseload had declined since July, but that 5,000 people a day were still being infected.

The disease spread due to deteriorating hygiene and sanitation conditions and disruptions to the water supply.

More than 14 million people are cut off from regular access to clean water and sanitation in Yemen, and waste collection has ceased in major cities. [Continue reading…]

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14 Saudi Shiites accused of staging protests now face execution

The Washington Post reports: Munir al-Adam spends his hours alone in a Saudi prison, his mother says. He doesn’t know if it is day or night because he is kept mostly in a dark cell. Partially blind and partially deaf, he has experienced different forms of torture in the five years since his arrest.

“He has been ordered to stand for long intervals of time,” said his mother, Zahraa Abdullah. “He was beaten with sticks and cables. He was electrocuted and prevented from eating or going to the bathroom.”

Adam and 13 other Saudi men are facing execution any day now for allegedly staging protests in the kingdom. All from the country’s Shiite minority, they include a teenager who was arrested just before he was to board a flight to visit a U.S. college where he planned to study English and finance.

The men were charged with terrorism-related offenses. But human rights activists and American academics say confessions from the defendants were extracted under torture and that the death sentences breach international law. Activists have launched a public appeal to Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to dismiss the sentences. [Continue reading…]

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The crisis of regional order in the Gulf

Ahmet Davutoglu, the former prime minister of Turkey, writes: At a time when the Middle East is in dire need of a positive agenda and a plan to overcome division, ominous new developments are dominating the scene and the forces of disintegration appear to have been unleashed.

The current “Gulf” crisis is just the latest manifestation of this trend. Before considering the way out of this crisis, it is important to accurately depict it, its root causes, and its regional implications.

There have been many depictions of the Qatari crisis, and several different names have been used to describe the nature of the issue.

“The Qatari crisis”, “the Gulf crisis”, “the contest to define a new regional order”, and “the latest chapter of the Arab Spring showdown” have all been employed on various occasions to describe the crisis.

These are all valid descriptions contingent upon observers’ own operational logic. In fact, the politics of naming a crisis is no frivolous endeavour. [Continue reading…]

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Human Rights Watch: Saudi terrorism is killing people in Yemen

Al Jazeera reports: The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) has questioned Saudi Arabia’s accusation of Qatar funding terrorism while the Kingdom itself continues to carry out “terrorism that is killing people in Yemen”.

The conflict in Yemen has escalated dramatically since March 2015, when the Saudi-led forces launched a military operation against the rebels.

Since the conflict began, more than 10,000 people have been killed and millions have been driven from their homes.

“We don’t talk about government terrorism such as the Saudi-led coalition that is killing people in Yemen,” HRW’s Kenneth Roth said at the Freedom of Expression, Facing up to the Threat conference in Qatar’s capital Doha on Monday.

“I am not aware of Qatar financing terrorist groups, but I am aware of the long-term Saudi promotion of an extreme version of Islam that is often adopted by terrorist groups.”

Yemen is also facing a health crisis, with the charity Oxfam reporting 360,000 suspected cases of cholera in the three months since the outbreak started in April. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi King’s son plotted effort to oust his rival

The New York Times reports: As next in line to be king of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Nayef was unaccustomed to being told what to do. Then, one night in June, he was summoned to a palace in Mecca, held against his will and pressured for hours to give up his claim to the throne.

By dawn, he had given in, and Saudi Arabia woke to the news that it had a new crown prince: the king’s 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman.

The young prince’s supporters have lauded his elevation as the seamless empowerment of an ambitious leader. But since he was promoted on June 21, indications have emerged that Mohammed bin Salman plotted the ouster and that the transition was rockier than has been publicly portrayed, according to current and former United States officials and associates of the royal family.

To strengthen support for the sudden change in the line of succession, some senior princes were told that Mohammed bin Nayef was unfit to be king because of a drug problem, according to an associate of the royal family.

The decision to oust Mohammed bin Nayef and some of his closest colleagues has spread concern among counterterrorism officials in the United States who saw their most trusted Saudi contacts disappear and have struggled to build new relationships.

And the collection of so much power by one young royal, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has unsettled a royal family long guided by consensus and deference to elders. [Continue reading…]

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More than 20 million people are at risk of starving to death. Will the world step up?

In an editorial, the Washington Post says: More than 20 million people in four countries are at risk of starvation in the coming months, in what the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. But the global response to the emergency has been lacking, both from governments and from private citizens. As of Monday, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was reporting that only 43 percent of the $6.27 billion needed to head off famine this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria had been raised. A poll by the International Rescue Committee showed that 85 percent of Americans are largely uninformed about the food shortages. The IRC calls it “likely the least reported but most important major issue of our time.”

Accounts by the United Nations, the U.S. government and private aid groups more than back up that claim. More than half the populations of Somalia and South Sudan are in need of emergency food assistance, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Civil wars in those countries have combined with meager spring rains to drastically reduce food supplies. In Nigeria, some 5 million people are at risk in the northeastern provinces where the terrorist group Boko Haram is active.

The most harrowing reports come from Yemen, where the United Nations says a staggering 20 million people need humanitarian aid. In addition to millions who lack food, more than 330,000 people have been afflcited by a cholera epidemic since late April, with one person dying nearly every hour on average. Donors have supplied less than 40 percent of the aid Yemen needs to prevent starvation, and officials have recently been forced to divert some of that assistance to fight cholera. In all four countries, children are disproportionately affected: Aid groups say 1.4 million severely malnourished children could die in the next few months if more help is not forthcoming. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s gift to Putin in the Mideast

Vali Nasr writes: Over the past two months, even as American-trained forces were driving Islamic State insurgents out of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, the war next door in Syria was taking a dangerous but little-remarked turn — one far more favorable for Russia’s ambitions to regain a position of broad influence in the Middle East.

First, a major gaffe by President Trump helped Saudi Arabia split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight against the Islamic State — so much so that Qatar and Turkey moved closer together and became open to cooperation with Iran and Russia. Later, when Mr. Trump sat down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany, the American president virtually handed the keys to the region to his adversary by agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed a lasting presence of Russian influence in that conflict — which only consolidated the likelihood of wider regional influence.

With Mr. Trump’s inner circle often at odds with one another and the president going his own unpredictable way, Mr. Putin seems never to miss an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the region. That has helped to blur even the longstanding lines of sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite states and to complicate America’s strategic position.

To be sure, Mr. Trump sent his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to the region to sort out the mess. But among the monarchs of the Middle East, an underling’s voice stood no chance of undoing the damage already done by his master’s tweets. [Continue reading…]

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Decimated Muslim Brotherhood still inspires fear. Its members wonder why

The New York Times reports: For Magdy Shalash, an Egyptian exile living here in Turkey, there is a certain irony to a recent diplomatic spat that has divided the Middle East.

Several Arab countries — led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — are enmeshed in a standoff with Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. One major reason? Qatari and Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that Mr. Shalash helps lead.

To its enemies, the Brotherhood is a terrorist group that seeks to unravel the established Arab order, and not just in Egypt, where the group was founded in 1928, but in countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, where the group has inspired similar movements.

Yet, members like Mr. Shalash, many of whom are either in jail in Egypt or in exile in countries like Turkey, say the group is not only democratic, but decimated and divided. They say it has little ability to exert control over even its own members, let alone the governments of the Middle East.

“Us sitting here,” said Mr. Shalash, in reference to the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Turkey, “we can’t really do anything.” [Continue reading…]

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