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Category Archive: Saudi Arabia

Arabia and the West: Two Paths to Modernity

4 November 2015 | comments (2) | Saudi Arabia | by

Mohammad Khokhar responded to last week’s article on Saudi history, Arabia: Land of Mystery, by asking what transpired in the centuries preceding the 1937 discovery of “black gold” at Dammam. We offer here a general response to his question, placing our answer within the context of Arabia’s long history.

Intermittently from the dawn of civilization in the region, waves of foreign conquerors have occupied parts of the Arabian Peninsula for varying periods of time, in some cases for centuries. Among them were the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines. A few times, Semitic invaders rose out of Arabia to subjugate foreign lands, most notably the Akkadians who took power in Mesopotamia and the Hyksos who accomplished the same in Egypt. In subduing the Nile Valley, the Hyksos employed two powerful, never-before-seen-there weapons whose adoption by the defeated Egyptians transformed the Pharaoh’s armies: the composite bow and the chariot.

Within Arabia, internecine struggles between an inchoate mass of indigenous tribes shaped life on the local level. On a larger scale, a succession of Arab kingdoms struggled for hegemony, their trajectories testified to today by the magnificent ruins of palaces and fortresses and places of worship they left behind. The intricate pattern of human endeavor woven by these many events served as an extended prelude to the rise of Islam.

The Rise of Islam

Arabia and the West: Two Paths to ModernityPage from the Oldest Surviving Islamic Book
Printed on Paper
Dating from the Early 8th Century CE

Of the three great monotheistic Abrahamic religions originating in Arabia, Islam has been paramount in its influence on Saudi history. Only by taking into account its contributions can one understand the history of the Kingdom and, as well, the history of the modern world.

In the Qur’an it is written, “Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error.” Islamic caliphs are said to have showed noteworthy tolerance toward the religious beliefs of Christians and Jews living under their rule. Adherents to those faiths are known to have held important public posts.

All Muslims were expected to learn Arabic so they could understand the Qur’an. This sharing of a common language helped unite diverse ethnic groups encompassed by the sprawling Islamic empire. It made possible the fruitful exchange of knowledge and ideas, with profound, lasting, widespread results.

Arabia and the West: Two Paths to ModernityThe Area in Green Illustrates the Reach
of the Islamic Conquests
at Their Greatest Height

Through an extended series of conquests over an array of cultures, the caliphs created a vast empire lacking internal political boundaries and largely free from external attack up to the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in the mid-13th century. Internally, until that tragedy, life in the Islamic world for centuries was peaceful and secure compared with much of the world. Commercial and intellectual and cultural exchanges flowed freely throughout the Islamic sphere, bringing together the knowledge and wisdom of India and China, ancient Greece and Rome, Persia and Egypt. Rulers in the main left their new conquests administratively and intellectually intact, preserving, not destroying, the best of those civilizations.

The Roman Empire at its height at the time of Christ enjoyed what historians have labeled the “Pax Romana”—the Roman Peace; similarly, the Muslim Empire at its height from the 8th until the mid-13th century enjoyed what some historians have labeled the “Pax Islamica”—the Islamic Peace.

Arabia and the West: Two Paths to Modernity

Islamic civilization at its medieval height embraced belief in the paramount importance of knowledge. In the mid-9th century CE, the Muslim world, stretching from east of Arabia across the southern shore of the Mediterranean into Spain, entered a period of astonishing economic, cultural and scientific achievement lasting some 400 years—an era known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Muhammad mandated public education for Muslims, giving a boost to the pursuit of knowledge. Paper-making technology was introduced from China, leading to the replacement of expensive parchment and papyrus with inexpensive paper. There followed an explosion of printed works, accompanied by the rapid expansion of knowledge in diverse fields. Extensive libraries, public and private, sprang up throughout the Muslim world.

Arabia and the West: Two Paths to Modernity

Arabs built the world’s first astronomical observatory, and their scientists speculated on the rotation of the planets around the sun at a time when many in pre-Copernican Europe believed the earth was the center of the universe. Scholars used their knowledge to calculate the circumference of the earth to within a few thousand feet. Arab cartographers applied their extensive knowledge of the world beyond their immediate borders to produce the finest maps the world would know for centuries to come. Arab scholars translated classical Greek works into Arabic, including the writings of Aristotle and Plato, preserving vital texts fundamental to the development of modern civilization that otherwise might have been lost.

Arabia and the West: Two Paths to Modernity

Arab mathematicians developed and refined algebra and geometry and spread the use of Arabic numerals—originally introduced from India—in place of cumbersome, unwieldy, severely-limiting Roman numerals. They also introduced the concept of zero. Their innovations opened a new world of rational, quantifiable scientific inquiry that would have been impossible to enter otherwise.

Other innovations introduced included the astrolabe for navigation, advances in health care and medicine, new methods in agriculture, livestock breeding and water distribution and fresh approaches to understanding history and philosophy. Over a period lasting a millennium, the culture and civilization of Arab lands shined like beacons in the night. When Europe entered the era known as the Renaissance, Arab contributions to that reawakening were prodigious.

Worlds Diverge, Then Converge

Euro-centric historians have long dated the “birth” of the modern world to the Renaissance, an epoch stretching across the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries in Europe. Much ink has been spilled chronicling the Scientific Revolution that succeeded it and the Industrial Revolution that followed that. The designation, definition and delineation of historical periods are always subject to debate, and scholars have argued endlessly about the interrelationships between these three eras. Consensus holds, however, that the Arab and Western worlds followed widely-divergent paths from the Renaissance into the modern age. The essence of Mohammad Khokhar’s question relates to that span of years. Going into greater detail than this will have to await another essay.

Neither the Renaissance nor the Scientific Revolution could have unfolded the way they did without the contributions of Arab science and scholarship, While the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe and beyond in the 18th and 19th centuries, for more than a hundred years the Arabian Peninsula experienced nothing comparable for a complex set of reasons. The salient point is, with the discovery of commercial quantities of “black gold” in the 1930s, Saudi Arabia finally enjoyed the resources necessary to modernize. Since then, the economy of the Kingdom has advanced at warp speed into the new millennium. In a greatly-compressed time frame, Saudi Arabia has undergone economic and social change Europe and America had centuries to master. Aramcons like Mohammad Khokhar have had front row seats to one of the most compelling stories in modern history.

Khalid A. Al-Falih

29 April 2015 | comments (9) | Saudi Arabia | by

Khalid A. Al-Falih

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud has appointed Mr. Khalid A. Al Falih as Minister of Health.

Khalid A. Al-Falih took office as president and chief executive officer of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) on January 1, 2009. With 60,000 employees, Saudi Aramco is an integrated global petroleum company and the leading industrial enterprise in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The company manages the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and is the world’s largest producer and exporter of crude oil, a major natural gas producer, and a leading player in global refining and petrochemicals.

A veteran of Saudi Aramco for his entire career, spanning three decades, Al-Falih served in key leadership positions across the organization, and drove continued expansion of the company’s business portfolio into new areas of operations. As Executive Vice President of Operations from 2007 through 2008, he oversaw all of the company’s core operations, including the business lines then for Exploration and Producing; Refining, Marketing, and International; Operations Services; and Engineering and Project Management. He also previously served as the Senior Vice President of Gas Operations and Industrial Relations, and as President of Petron Corporation, a past joint venture between Saudi Aramco and the Philippine National Oil Company. As leader of Saudi Aramco’s Corporate Planning team, Al-Falih guided the development of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s natural gas strategy. When the company formed its New Business Development organization in 2003, Al-Falih was appointed as the first head of the organization. In that role, he led the development of mega-projects — such as Petro Rabigh, Sadara, Satorp and Yasref — with the purpose of achieving refining and petrochemical integration, in cooperation with leading global oil and gas, and chemical enterprises.

Al-Falih was appointed to the Saudi Aramco Board of Directors in 2004.

Al-Falih earned his B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University in 1982. In 1991, he received his MBA from the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. His membership of professional societies includes the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the International Association for Energy Economics (IAEE), and the Oxford Energy Policy Club.

Al-Falih is a well-known advocate of higher education in Saudi Arabia. Since 2008, he has served as a founding member of the Board of Trustees of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Al-Falih headed the Saudi Aramco team that spearheaded the construction of KAUST’s physical campus and organizational development. The company — through its partnership in the Industrial Collaboration Program — continues to support KAUST’s economic development mission. Al-Falih also continues to serve as a member of the International Advisory Board of KFUPM and Board of Trustees of Prince Muhammad ibn Fahd University.

He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council (IBC), the Asia Business Council, the J.P. Morgan International Council and the MIT Presidential CEO Advisory Board. He previously served on the Board of Directors for both the National Industrial Clusters Development Program, and the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation.

Al-Falih is active in many social programs, and previously served as Chairman of the Dammam Metropolitan Area Municipal Council. His board memberships in other community-focused organizations include the Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Fund for Supporting Small Business Projects for Women.

Heritage Gallery Puts Focus on Manifa

28 April 2015 | comments (0) | Saudi Arabia | by

Saudi Aramco News

DHAHRAN — Have you ever wondered what the term “wildcatting” means in the process of drilling an oil field or about the role of Saudi Aramco’s Environmental Protection Department? Are you unsure about the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship, or would you like to learn about the importance of coral reef and seabed meadows and discover what species of marine life survive and inhabit the waters of the Arabian Gulf?

Stop by the Community Heritage Gallery in Dhahran as the answers to these questions, along with many more, are now revealed in the Heritage Galley’s latest exhibition, “Manifa: A Wildcatting Discovery.”

Discover how in 1957 an offshore oil field was discovered in an area not known to contain oil. Learn the stages of oil well discovery, why drilling was suspended in the area, and why by 1984 it was mothballed. Find out why in 2006 Saudi Aramco management again set its sights on the known oil reserves in the shallow waters of Manifa Bay.

Visitors to the exhibit will leave informed about the engineering accomplishments, the new technologies developed and employed during the making of Manifa and discover how the risk to the delicate ecosystem was reduced.

Discover how Saudi Aramco was able to convert Manifa into both an offshore and onshore facility with an outstanding safety record.

As visitors walk around the exhibit set in the spacious temporary exhibit room, they will be transported into the moment by the many photographs and objects that are on display and fill the arena.

The exhibit was recently inaugurated under the auspices of Amin H. Nasser, senior vice president of Upstream, along with the attendance of management from various areas and departments.

In her opening remarks, Community Heritage Gallery coordinator Liela T. Al- Dossary paid tribute to the participation and achievements of both Manifa and the Drilling Department for the valuable assistance given to the staff at the CHG during the creation of the exhibit.

The opening began with the ribboncutting ceremony performed by Nasser; Nasir K. Al-Naimi, vice president of Northern Area Oil Operations, Azeb Qahtani, manager of Manifa Producing; and Mohammed Al Abdulkarim, general manager of Community Services Projects and Technical Support (previously the Manifa manager of mega-projects.)

The tour was conducted by Isobel Vail, a senior research writer and docent at the Community Heritage Gallery. The exhibit will be showcased for one year.

Abqaiq: A Look Back – The Mystery of the Bedouins of Fazran

1 October 2014 | comments (12) | Saudi Arabia | by

By Mark Lowey
Photographs by Keith Belcher, Ann Lowey and Mark Lowey

In this personal look back, Abqaiq resident Mark Lowey reminisces about the lasting impressions of his desert encounters over 35 years ago at a remote GOSP site, the Bedouin family who had befriended him and his first taste of authentic Saudi hospitality. Thanks to a chance encounter, Mark recently reconnected with the family and found that remarkable changes have taken place.

I first came to Abqaiq in 1978. Fresh out of university in California, I was deployed to Saudi Arabia for a two-year assignment on a project team constructing Gas Oil Separation Plants (GOSP) in the Ain Dar and Shedgum areas. Our most remote site was a small GOSP known as Fazran-1.

Mark Lowey

Back then, travelling 90 minutes each way and working in Fazran were eye-opening experiences. We were a team of Americans, Canadians, British, Filipinos and Thais. When we finished our communal lunch, the remaining food, usually rice, was quickly loaded into the back of a small Toyota pickup truck that disappeared into the desert. I later learned that several Bedouin families lived nearby, attracted to our permanent water supply and leftover food that they used for their livestock of goats and camels.


Eventually, we and the Bedouins became friendly with each other and enjoyed long discussions through translators. The Bedouin family patriarch, Faleh, would often sit with me in my tiny site office trailer, and we would drink tea and coffee and try to communicate. Depending on the season Faleh would be waiting at the door when I arrived at 6 a.m. – and wait for me to crank up either the heater or the air conditioner. Over the months, I came to learn about the healthful benefits of camel’s milk as well as many interesting aspects of the Bedouin culture. Faleh had a raspy voice, powerful build and huge hands. Rumor had it that when it was time to brand the camels, he could bring one down with one hand by grasping the tail and tugging sideways.

An invitation

In the cool winter months, the invitation came for a meal at Faleh’s place. His tent camp was set up about an hour’s drive north of Fazran, over straight, rolling drillers’ roads of compacted marl. We were to arrive at midday on Friday. A fellow expat and I set off after an early breakfast in Abqaiq. Once clear of Fazran, the desert changed rapidly and became very green from recent rains. This was prime grazing land.

Meet the family

Upon arrival we were greeted by Faleh and shown to the main section of his family tent. Abdulhadi, Faleh’s elder brother, prepared demitasses of traditional Arabic coffee, dates were served, and we met their children and cousins. The tent section next to us housed the goats, and at the end was the makeshift kitchen. Faleh proudly held his tightly-swaddled infant son for a photograph. The others were eager to have their pictures taken, especially after we handed out instant Polaroid photos.

Finally, after the last minute arrival of several Bedouin neighbors, the meal was served, a large platter of chicken and lamb on a bed of flavored rice. Slightly curdled camel’s milk was poured over the mix. We sat on weathered carpets and ate in the traditional Arab style with our right hand scooping up the rice and meat. It was delicious. The grandmother and grandfather joined us, and the children watched and laughed with delight as we shared this unexpected bounty in the desert.

Mark Lowey

1978: A lucky photograph – in one take

The group photo with me seated between Abdulhadi and his two sons was taken with an Olympus OM-2 set on a mini-tripod. I balanced it on a barrel, focused, started the timer and quickly ran around behind them to sit down. As the shutter opened, Abdulhadi turned towards me, wondering what’s going on. No time for a second take. The two young boys in the photo are brothers, Suhaim and Saleh; more on that later.

Soon after the photos were taken, I left Saudi Arabia, not to return again for another 30 years. Over the years since 1978, I‘ve treasured the photos taken during those visits. I have shared them with friends and family and often wondered what became of the Bedouins of Fazran. It was not until 2010 when I joined Saudi Aramco that I found myself back in Abqaiq, exactly where my engineering career had begun.

Fast-forward to 2013

One day in October 2013 in the Abqaiq Mall I met Geraiyan Al-Hajri, the legendary Saudi Aramco explorer and road surveyor. My photos were part of an exhibition organized by the Abqaiq Art, Craft and Hobby Group, a self-directed group sponsored by the Abqaiq Recreation Services Unit. Al-Hajri pointed to Faleh in the photo and said, “I know that man. That’s my cousin!” I was awestruck — finally, a connection. From Geraiyan I learned that Faleh and Abdulhadi had passed away and that the small boy dressed in white, Suhaim, had grown up, attended university, and now holds a prestigious job in Qatar. His brother, Saleh remained in Saudi Arabia and resides in Ain Dar.

Dune bashing

Days later I received a phone call from Suhaim inviting my wife and I to a party in the desert. With another expat couple from Abqaiq, we met Suhaim and his large family at a rendezvous point near the Salasil Bridge on the Dammam-Riyadh highway, greeting each other warmly after such a long time. After a quick glance at my four-wheel drive Tahoe, he beckoned me to follow his Toyota Land Cruiser as we turned off the highway onto the Fazran Road. Suhaim was happy to play tour guide along the route – his boyhood territory. Stopping at the wreckage of an ancient blue Dodge pick-up truck, he explained that this truck appears in one of my photos from 1978, and he knew the owner. He pointed out the now mothballed GOSP where my site office once stood. Nearby were the Saudi Aramco-built concrete water troughs for camels and goats that had attracted Bedouins around the time I was there. He was proud to show me a Qibla locator and prayer area made of large stones and rubber tires still visible in the desert sand after all these years.

Then Suhaim smiled and announced “no more information,” and we were off-road and heading northward across sun drenched dunes and hard packed sabka. It was difficult to keep pace with him and, from time to time, he had to stop and wait for us to catch up. Brother Saleh, in another Land Cruiser, suddenly appeared, joining us around halfway there. As I wondered how they could possibly navigate the featureless expanses – and actually rendezvous in the middle of nowhere – I watched my three-quarters full gas gauge visibly sinking towards empty as the car trudged through the desert terrain.

We found our way to the desert encampment several kilometers from the village of Airj. There we were warmly greeted by his extended family, around 50 people in all, and escorted to our respective sections: the women in a carpeted mobile home trailer and the men in a traditional goat hair tent, not unlike the one we had sat in 35 years ago.

Party in the desert

A low wood burning camp fire was heating brass pots of Arabic coffee as the group crowded around us for a good look. I was congratulated for having preserved the photographs since 1978, and many family members tearfully expressed their joy at seeing the first photographic images of their relatives, some of whom have long since passed away. As a gift, I had brought handsomely framed enlargements and copies of the photos for the immediate family members.

We were shown to the seats of honor on colorful carpets at the back of the main tent facing out and every one was introduced, including their honorific nicknames. I told them my nickname is “Abu Jack” (father of Jack) and there was lots of laughter. One man suggested that he would accept my daughter as his second wife, but hesitated, whispering that his first wife’s son was listening nearby. More laughter.

Lunch is served

A traditional Saudi meal on a huge platter was set down, and there was space for around ten of us to eat at once. I watched and tried to imitate my hosts as they mixed the delicious flavored rice and tender, warm morsels of lamb with labneh into large balls in the palms of their right hand. When someone finished and stood up, another would jump into the space and begin eating. Afterward, we removed small twigs from a special shrub to use as toothpicks; I was shown that in the absence of water, digging one’s hands in the sand will remove the food and grease effectively. In the end, I was grateful for the water being poured over my hands along with the offer of powdered soap.

Everyone was happy to pose for photographs and many mobile phone cameras were used. One memorable image that day shows Suhaim, Saleh and I, reunited after three decades, holding the framed photograph of us from so many years ago.

A spontaneous poem and dance

Suhaim’s brother, Mohammed, is a poet and announced that he would compose a song for me in my honor. He sat down with a pen and a scrap of paper and was lost in thought – gazing into the distance, mouthing words and counting cadences on his fingers. Soon he was ready. He arranged two rows of six men each facing each other. Arms linked and moving rhythmically in step, he led his row as they sang the first verse, and the opposite group would then repeat it. I could make out the words “Marhaba, Mark” (Hello, Mark) and not much else, but I sensed the power of the words and felt great honor. Then the real folkloric dancing ensued, led by the two pre-adolescent sons of Saleh who swayed back and forth with one hand held high and the other placed behind their back. One by one we took turns dancing this way between the two rows.

Curious to see what was going on, the women had quietly crept nearby behind several vehicles to watch. Being Westerners, our two wives were hailed to join us.

All too soon, after the mid-afternoon prayer time, it was time to depart, and we were bid farewell, but not before our tires were carefully inspected, gas gauges checked and stern road safety advice given by our hosts. The return trip was far less bumpy on the paved road from Airj. We enjoyed a short rest stop in Ain Dar, where Suhaim invited us to his family majlis for a final cup of tea before heading back to Abqaiq.

After all these years, the mystery of the Bedouins of Fazran had been solved. Reunited, I was pleased to see that this remarkable family has grown and flourished over the past three decades. It was evident that the region’s prosperity had touched their lives and provided education and modern comforts for their families. Balancing their Bedouin roots with the demands of a modern world, it was good to see that the boys have become men, strong and wise in ways that their father would be proud.

A photo taken 35 years ago had bridged past and present and brought me full circle to a place deep in the desert, where I found the Saudi traditions of hospitality, family and friendship not only endure but continue to thrive. It is a place where I will always feel welcome.

The Month of Ramadan

7 July 2014 | comments (1) | Saudi Arabia | by

Is Ramadan a month when people eat lavishly, become soap opera addicts, and shop and stay up late till the wee hours of the night? Or is this impression in stark contrast with the spirit of Ramadan?

Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. Omayyad Mosque in Damascus.

The Qur’an ordained the fast of Ramadan in 624 C.E. Muslim men and women also celebrate Ramadan because it was on one of the last nights of this month, “The Night of Power,” when the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur’an in 610 C.E. It is a month in which they attempt to breathe the air of piety and tranquility: they are constantly engaged in worship, individually and congregationally, in recitation of the Qur’an from cover to cover, and in charitable deeds.

The spiritual aspect of the month is further highlighted by the night-time congregational prayers, tarawih. The almsgiving reflects the community’s sharing of their God-given bounty with those who are less fortunate.

It is truly a time when a Muslim’s life is suffused with peace, contemplation, self-abnegation and giving.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is compulsory for every adult Muslim male and female who is mentally and physically fit and is not on a journey. Those unable to fast during Ramadan for excusable reasons, such as temporary illness, travel, pregnancy or nursing children, are obligated to do so later in the year. Those permanently unable to fast, due to health reasons or old age, are required to pay alms to make up the days they miss. Out of respect, Muslims who are exempted from fasting for such reasons refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in front of those who fast.

During Ramadan, hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world rise to its moral and physical challenges by abstaining not only from eating, drinking, smoking and other carnal pleasures, but also from getting angry, swearing and gossiping. The fasting period starts just before daybreak and ends at sunset.

The discipline imposed by Ramadan can serve to break unhealthy habits. Fasting motivates smokers to quit, and coffee addicts, like myself, realize that they can live without coffee. Those who have an unbreakable tie with anything that has a sprinkle of sugar on it will wait patiently until they can enjoy luqaymat, sweet dumplings, or other sugary delicacies, that are popular in Ramadan.

Nevertheless, Ramadan has the character of a festival: a substantial meal, Iftar, “breakfast,” served at sunset to mark the end of the day-long fast. It is common to see a family immersed in preparing the iftar meal with the aromatic wafts of delicious fare and the sounds of clattering cutlery. Muslims appreciate the feeling of togetherness at the iftar, which is shared by families and friends. Mosque courtyards are another place where the young and old, rich and poor, gather to break their fast.

Madina Haram at sunset. Madina Haram at sunset.

Iftar is not intended to shock the stomach with abundant amounts of food. Instead, when the sunset call to prayer is heard, many break their fast with a few sips of water, often Zamzam water from the sacred well in the Grand Mosque at Makkah. For many families, dates are indispensable at the time of breaking the fast as they were eaten at the same time in the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The dates and water are followed by the main meal, a tempting array of Ramadan specialties. Another meal, suhur, is taken before the start of one’s fast just before dawn breaks. The Prophet has recommended partaking of this meal.

Youngsters, especially girls and boys in the Gulf countries, count the days until the 15th night of Ramadan for a folk event called Qarqa‘an. They roam the streets wearing traditional costumes, singing lyrics celebrating this month and knocking on doors hoping to fill their bags with sweets or nuts.

‘Id al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, marks the end of the holy month. With a final act of charity, Muslims pay the mandated Zakat al-Fitr to the needy to enable them to join in the ‘Id festivities. On the first day of ‘Id, families go for a celebratory prayer to the mosque wearing new clothes. Later, they visit relatives and friends, and they enjoy amusement parks where the children are the monarchs of all the rides and games.

Printed with permission by Rahmah I. Nawwab.

Originally published on Aramco ExPats in 2009

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