The Future of the Middle East

By Hugh Miles - 12 October 2017
The Future of the Middle East

This is the concluding chapter of the forthcoming e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. All the chapters will be collected and published in a free downloadable e-book on the 23rd October.

After decades of political stagnation the system of Arab states set up a hundred years ago by colonial powers is starting to fall apart. As the new era dawns countries across the region, as well as a host of non-state actors, are fighting over what the future is going to look like. Often this fight is violent, but it is also conducted by every other means.

The Arab world is cracking up because - as we have seen in this e-book - the region is going backwards and the people living there simply will not tolerate this any more. The information revolution in the 90s and 00s gave them a rights-based mentality and an internationalist outlook. It was only a question of time before they started demanding basic freedoms and rights just like others all over the world. This manifested itself as the Arab Spring in 2010 - 2011 and it lead to the collapse of several long-standing Arab regimes.

Those events should not be viewed as isolated incidents, but more like events surrounding the French Revolution or the Thirty Years War, a long process characterised by several consecutive revolutionary waves. Currently the revolution is in retraction, a time for organisation and recruitment, but sooner or later the next wave will come and it is likely to be much more aggressive and radical than the last one. 

Pillars of the Arab world

The two main pillars of the old Arab world are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, creaking giants who made it through the first wave and still dominate the region in just about every way. Despite past differences the regimes in these two countries now find themselves locked in a deep embrace, the twin poles of the counter-revolution, desperate that whatever the new Arab world looks like it will continue to look much like the old one i.e. with them still in charge.

In Egypt this plan is going just about as well as the Sisi regime could have hoped. The counter-revolution has worked, for now at least. The army has reestablished control over most of the country, the war in North Sinai and the armed insurgency drag on and are badly damaging the economy, but they are not an existential threat. Besides, peace would be worse as the regime depends on insecurity to justify its existence. The key is it has managed to stay in power with all privileges to which it is accustomed, always its overriding goal.

Now the threat of popular revolution has retreated and the Islamists are in check the Deep State and its allies are reverting to their preferred pastime: deepening and thickening their role in the Egyptian economy, especially in lucrative, strategic areas like energy, construction and the media. The Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters purged from business, their seats are being filled by army officers and Mubarak-era businessmen fresh back from exile, only this time with more oversight from the army. Notorious figures like Hussein Salem and Ahmed Ezz are back in business. The corruption is back as before.

The cost of enforcing this counter-revolution has been a military coup, the mass killing of protesters and a systematic state-run programme of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture which Human Rights Watch recently described as a crime against humanity. Almost 60,000 political prisoners and detainees are incarcerated in Egyptian prisons according to a report released last year by Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. We would know more about these crimes if Egypt, one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists, had not recently blocked hundreds of blogs and websites (including Human Rights Watch) as well as other online communications platforms and VPNs.

Saudi Arabia - the crackdown

Saudi Arabia emerged relatively unscathed from the 2011 revolutions but, seeing the writing on the wall, the regime there has also launched its own far-reaching pre-emptive crackdown on opposition of all kinds. In the Eastern Province the Shia are being subjected to a ruthless campaign of suppression, largely ignored by the outside world. At the start of September the regime arrested many of the kingdom’s most influential clerics including Sheikh Salman Al Owdah (14 million followers on Twitter) and Awad al-Qarni (2.2 million Twitter followers) as well as others. Opposition groups had called for nationwide protests on September 15 to protest economic and social conditions, corruption and MBS converting the traditional Saudi Bedouin system of governance into one-man rule. The protests attracted huge interest online but were quelled by an overwhelming police presence like the last time in 2011.

Since MBS came to power there has also been an unprecedented attempt by the regime to silence dissent within the royal family itself. The whole family is under surveillance, no prince can leave Saudi Arabia without his permission, and anyone suspected of opposing his bid to become king is being locked up. Unknown numbers of princes are now under house arrest - maybe a dozen or more - as well as a larger yet unknown number of princesses. He has reportedly installed a secret prison in his palace for special high-value prisoners. Among those recently detained is Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, son of a former king, who in August criticised the de facto ruler of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and issued then retracted a suspicious tweet about being targeted shortly before he was taken. Even MBS’s own mother, Princess Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan al-Hithlayn, has reportedly been detained at a luxurious farm in Al Kharj as her penchant for magic was proving a political liability.

But the most eye-popping example of MBS’s crackdown on dissent in his own family this year must surely be the public defenestration and humiliation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that took place in June. Dethroned, denounced and placed under house arrest, the message was clear: I can do this to him, I can do it to you. Nobody is untouchable any more.

Opponents to the Saudi regime in the west are also being targeted. Like Col Qadhafi with his Stray Dogs programme or North Korea assassinating the ruler’s half-brother the Saudis run their own state-sponsored abduction programme targeting dissidents and defectors living in the West. In the last two years they have abducted at least three royal family defectors and taken them back to the kingdom against their will. Their fate is unknown, although on 2 October Prince Turki Al Faisal confirmed for the first time that they are back inside the Kingdom where they are being treated like criminals.

In 2003 a similar spate of émigré dissident kidnappings occurred when within the space of a few months the Saudis drugged and violently kidnapped Prince Sultan bin Turki from Switzerland and then made attempts on two other well-known dissidents: Dr. Saad al Fagih was assaulted and stabbed at his home in London before managing to fight off the attackers. Prof. Mohammed Al Massary was targeted by a UK policeman who had been corrupted by an official at the Saudi embassy and subsequently had to enter a witness protection programme for his own safety.

The revolution will not be televised

No one can stop a revolution being propelled by such deep currents, but as we saw in 2011 one of the main factors driving this one is the explosion of the internet, where the revolution is already happening 24 hours a day.

As Dr Alanoud Al-Sharekh has noted, the Gulf region regularly tops world indexes for frequency of (per capita) use of social media tools and developments in new communications technology. These changes have dramatically levelled the playing-field.

Social media is toxic for totalitarian systems because it is by nature democratic and informal, with no respect for the kind of baroque regal antics and macho military posturing Arab regimes try and hide behind. Online, regimes are de-frocked and de-iconised, a brutal necessary psychological step before assailing the wall of fear.

Crucially as there are now many popular, credible alternatives to official government-approved media and religious establishments online, regimes have also lost of control of the Islamic message. This, combined with home-grown Arab social media stars broadcasting audio-visual evidence of regime members’ penchant for sex, drugs and violence, has eviscerated any claim to religious legitimacy.

And the torrent of leaks keeps coming. Where once information about the internal workings of Arab regimes was scarce, now it flows in abundance with information from Wikileaks, the Panama Papers, even details of the UAE ambassador in Washington’s email communications about prostitutes. Hundreds of thousands of pages of confidential documents now in the public domain provide a detailed insight into these regimes’ inner workings.

In February 2015 the Egyptian regime was painfully hit when a pro-Islamist TV channel aired a leaked audio recording, later authenticated, showing Sisi and his inner circle discussing the Gulf states in disparaging terms while planning how to tap them for another $30bn to be diverted into banks accounts used by the Egyptian army. In minutes the conversation systematically dismantles the army’s widely-propagated notion that it is the heroic protector of the nation and instead shows it to be what many long suspected: a shady private business enterprise which acts in its own interest with no proper oversight.

Determined to wrestle back control of the information flow the regimes are using every available means, from powerful lobbyists and PR firms, to robots and tracking systems, reactionary laws, fines and jail time for social media postings and “political” tweets.

On August 17 after the king’s top media advisor Saud Al Qahtani, Adviser to the Royal Court and Supervisor General of the Center for Media and Affairs Studies had his darknet account hacked and correspondence leaked, it was revealed for years he has been recruiting hackers on a darknet forum to shut down or control online accounts belonging to opposition members, spy on dissidents using their own PCs and to buy thousands of fake Twitter and Youtube accounts which are used online to make fake “likes” and “dislikes”, for electronic DoS attacks, and also for trumped up legal complaints to get opposition media taken down by moderators. These leaks are supported by previous leaks showing correspondence between Al Qahtani and the controversial Italian computer security company Hacking Team.

Hours before he was hacked Saud Al Qahtani had announced the formation of a blacklist (hashtag #القائمة السوداء ) on Twitter which he said the state would use to identify and hunt down opponents based on their online handle or IP address. He went on to quote a saying from the hadith “to kill a specific list of people even if they are found hiding under the curtains of the Holy Kaaba” which could be interpreted as a green light to kill anyone on that blacklist. To erase doubt the regime went on to issue some explicit personal death threats to specific opposition members, including the prominent Saudi political satirist Ghanem Al Dowsari who lives in exile in London. He was telephoned by Prince Abdulaziz bin Mashour, brother of MBS’s first wife Princess Sara and subjected to several direct threats including that he would cut off Al Dowsari’s head. Al Dowsari has since received other explicit threats including on 10 September when self-confessed Saudi hitman Majed Maliki, who claims to hold the current title in the Guinness Book of Records for eating the most live scorpions, threatened to come to London to kill and eat him. In the video Majed Maliki, who boasts he has already killed several other people in the past, proves his identity by showing his July 2015 certificate from the Guinness Book of Records when he beat the previous record holder by guzzling 22 live scorpions.

Since then the Saudi regime has continued to make more Orwellian calls urging people to monitor each other on social media and report critics.

The full book will be released on the 23rd October on Global Policy and through the Arab Digest. 

Wrong side of history

Despite all these flagrant breaches of human rights and the rule of law these regimes remain close allies of Western governments and continue to receive vital economic and political support. President Trump recently withheld a symbolic $300 million worth of dollars in aid to Egypt on the basis of human rights, a relatively small amount and the US has already indicated this decision may be partially reversed. The same day UK minister Alistair Burt met Egypt's Foreign Minister Shoukry and gave him strong reassurances Britain was committed to Egypt’s “war against terrorism”.

A few days later Burt wrote a ground-breaking letter (in Arabic only) that was published in Egyptian state media which appeared to set out a newly hostile UK government policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Without mentioning human rights, the letter condemned the Brotherhood in unprecedented tones before going on to misleadingly equate the Egyptian regime’s ongoing battle against armed political opposition with the UK’s struggle against Jihadi militants. On 4 October the UK's Defence Senior Advisor for the Middle East Lt General Tom Beckett arrived in Cairo to discuss opportunities to expand UK-Egypt joint military collaboration, the latest in a series of high profile defence engagement visits between the UK and Egypt this year.

The West’s love-in with the Saudis also continues to break new ground. Despite President Trump accusing the Saudis of masterminding 9-11 the US government is currently fighting to stop an international inquiry into atrocities in Yemen demanded by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and backed by China. The UK government, which has sold £3.6 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since conflict with Yemen began and just signed a new military and security cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia, continues to suppress a Home Office report about Gulf governments promoting Islamist extremism.

As Angela Merkel said no one defends the Saudis without being bribed.

Despite high-sounding proclamations about human rights other Western governments are little better. Italy’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia doubled to €14.16 billion this year, a more than fivefold increase since 2014 despite European Parliament resolutions calling for an arms embargo in light of violations of human rights and international law in Yemen. Canada just got caught out selling the Kingdom armoured vehicles which have been used to carry out human rights abuses in the Eastern Province.

The French and Swiss governments are still covering up their roles in the kidnapping of the Saudi princes who sought protection in their countries. In Switzerland the 15 year statute of limitations on the serious criminal charges filed by Prince Sultan bin Turki against two senior members of the regime for his kidnap in 2003 is quietly being allowed to run down, defeating the ability to pursue the prosecution even though as the Swiss authorities are well aware, and as the Saudis have now admitted the plaintiff has been abducted and taken back to Saudi Arabia again in the meantime. The French investigation into the abduction of Prince Sultan bin Turki on Feb 1 2016 when his plane was diverted to Riyadh after leaving a Paris airport also appears to be going nowhere.

Nor has any western government seen fit to criticise the Saudis for the kidnappings of US and European nationals who were members of Prince Sultan bin Turki’s personal entourage and were abducted with him on the same flight on Feb 1 2016. They were taken to Saudi Arabia against their will, stripped of their electronic goods and detained for three days.

Non-western countries such as Russia and China also provide support to Arab regimes but not on the same scale as western nations. On 4 October King Salman paid a historic visit to Moscow, Russia already sells large quantities of arms to Algeria and some to Egypt and China is active in the same markets.

Return of the Jedi

Revolutionary waves are like penny-pushers - you just can’t tell when they are about to drop. The last wave was totally unexpected but still Western governments carry on like there will be no sequel. Sooner or later though it will come and these regimes will enter the dustbin of history, just like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, now living in Saudi Arabia, and Libya’s Col. Qadhafi, pulled out of a sewage pipe and murdered by his own people.

In Egypt, having already experienced one wave followed by two years of unprecedented freedom and democracy including five plebiscites we are in a position to make an informed guess what the next wave is going to look like.

One lesson from last time was that unlike other Arab countries Egypt is not about to fall apart. Secondly, as Tom Dinham described, there are essentially three political forces struggling for control: disorganised liberal groups unable to transform popular enthusiasm for their democratic platform into organisationally powerful political parties; the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2011 the liberals started the revolution and made it a success, but then after a short period of freedom well-organised Islamist groups took over. It seems likely that a similar scenario will play out again next time too, as although the regime has done its utmost to smash the Muslim Brotherhood their roots in Egypt run deep. As Azzam Tamimi observed they have been almost completely annihilated twice before and came back both times. When the next wave comes they will inevitably seek to purge the Deep State - the army, judiciary, media and security services - since that was arguably their biggest mistake last time.

As the Deep State will be fighting for its life, so there is a grim possibility Egypt is heading towards an Algeria-style scenario of protracted civil war or worst of all, a Syrian scenario. This is what the Sisi regime holds up as the most likely or only possible alternative to his rule and out of fear many people accept this. It is easy to see why. Given Egypt’s geopolitical importance a Syrian-style meltdown would obviously be a catastrophic disaster with far-reaching ramifications, one of them surely that Europe would be inundated with millions of refugees.

But it is easy to imagine a different scenario, similar to that which took place in Iran in 1979: military leadership paralyzed by indecision, rank-and-file soldiers demoralized and under constant call to defect. Mutinies take place in several barracks and officers are shot. Fearing further mutinies, many soldiers return to their barracks and quickly some provincial towns fall to the opposition. Before long the revolution is complete. Egypt’s army is, after all, a people’s army and so just as touched by Islamist thinking as everyone else.

Notwithstanding Robin Lamb’s argument that political Islam has been diminished this is the least bloody and most optimistic of Egypt’s possible futures, especially if Egypt were then to transition into some kind of peaceful Islamic democracy, like Tunisia, and other Arab countries copied it. This vision of a thriving democratic, Islamist Egypt is the one that Qatar is betting on and the one Al Jazeera propagates.

Given the Brotherhood’s problematic, sectarian ideology, the big challenge for Western policy-makers is therefore to make it moderate its views before it comes to power so that it does not become a theocratic replica of the secular security state it replaces. This is best done through positive engagement, while trying to set the best possible example of freedom and democracy, like the US did during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Post-Al Saud Arabia

A collapse of the regime in Saudi Arabia is an even more alarming prospect than in Egypt because Saudi Arabia plays such a critical role in the global and regional economy and because the status quo ante was anarchy. Furthermore, since Saudi Arabia has been so predictable for such a long time and has never been a free country we have very little idea what kind of future the great Saudi public will choose when they finally get the chance, especially women. Another complicating factor is that whenever it comes to discussing the future of Arabia post-Al Saud usually loquacious foreign affairs institutions, think-tanks and media fall strangely silent and instead defer to the line dictated by the Saudi lobby: Arabia post-Al Saud is a taboo fantasy never to be spoken of and certainly never to be realised.

So what would it look like? As Anthony Harris quoting Niels Bohr wrote, prediction is very difficult, especially when it’s about the future, but below are three possible scenarios for Arabia post Al Saud in no particular order. Liberal democracy is unfortunately not likely to break out on the Arabian peninsular any time soon and the reality is that one repressive system will probably be replaced by another, as occurred in Iran. As the rise of shale has diminished Saudi Arabia’s global economic importance, so the chance of foreign intervention in any future conflict in the Arabian peninsular must also be diminishing.

1. Civil War

The Syria model: a messy attempted revolution leads to a civil war with proxy fighting by outside influences. This leads to some regional fall-out and causes considerable damage to assets, infrastructure, and transport options. The positions adopted by Saudi Arabia’s neighbours would be important in this scenario.

Due to Saudi Arabia’s desert geography and the international alarm caused by the disruption to oil production, the conflict would likely be short and intense, so any supply interruption of oil supplies would be limited. Downstream industries and organisational structure might be impaired for longer. Although major physical destruction of oil production capacity is technically possible historically it has occurred extremely rarely.

The Strait of Hormuz becomes dangerous to navigate at least for a period, with reduced capacity. If the Straits of Hormuz are threatened or closed Oman and Fujairah, the easternmost of the Emirates would become crucial, as happened in the first Gulf War.

Transport and insurance costs skyrocket, as in Nigeria during the Biafra war or the second Iraq war. Substantial physical oil supply interruption would last throughout the period of hostilities and much would depend on the allegiance of the regime that ultimately ended up in control of Saudi Aramco.

The civil war settlement may not be fully accepted and attempts would likely continue to reopen the conflict, kept alive from abroad. This would likely preclude a government with a high degree of legitimacy and stability. Saudi Arabia may become a failed state and explode into violence, institutional collapse and mass emigration. The littoral Gulf states could be badly affected and a high proportion of their indigenous population could become refugees. Qatar would be better placed than others due to the presence of the Al Udeid air base.

2. Salafi takeover

A second possible future scenario is a collapse of the present regime followed by a political takeover by a conservative-authoritarian Salafi government. This is the scenario that would involve the least change. Al Saud are swept away like the House of Romanov in 1917 and the Sunni Islamist opposition ride in like Lenin and scoop up the power lying on the streets of Riyadh. The country retains its territorial integrity and civil war is avoided.

This scenario would see a lot of policy continuity with the existing government. Economic growth would be managed at a low but acceptable level. Levels of corruption would improve and there would be higher official taxes and state expenditure. Anti-Shia discrimination would increase and the new regime would be even more conservative and Wahhabi than the one now. The new government would remain a reluctant ally of the West.

A royal family coup could open the door to any of these scenarios and a faltering post-coup attempt to implement a reformed or constitutional monarchy could trigger a second revolutionary wave and Salafi takeover, rather like the February and October Revolutions in Russia in 1917.

3. Shia takeover

A third possible scenario is one in which the Eastern Province is taken over by a Shia government, closely allied to Iran. The rest of the country follows scenario 1 or 2. The new government then reviews and renegotiates all agreements and partnerships, and a major technology and know-how exchange begins between “Shia Saudi” and the Iranian national oil, gas and chemical companies. A major re-orientation of political and commercial international partners follows. The renegotiation and transfer of agreements and interests in KSA would happen over a short period of time, proceeding in a more or less friendly way, with more or less compensation paid.

Since there has been a long-standing anti-Shia discrimination inside Aramco there would follow a clean-out of Saudi Aramco’s top management, with key jobs moving mostly to Shia, and perhaps also to Shia-sympathisers. Iranian top-managers would then be moved in to compensate for the experience gap / talent shortfall, likely a difficult process that would have a destabilising effect on business, distract top management, and weaken company morale.

The wider international consequences in this scenario would be hard to predict. Iran might subsequently be invaded or attacked by western powers. A militaristic western response, as happened in Libya, cannot be ruled out. A new global Cold War could start between the US and China, with Iran and its allies aligned with China, or in a context of detente between the USA and Iran.

A clue as to which option the UK government is betting on can be found in the National Archives at Kew. One declassified document entitled British policy in case of a coup written by a UK foreign office official in 1963 but feels more recent concludes:

“The part of Saudi Arabia that matters most to us is the Eastern Province. In case of a coup, the situation is likely to take even longer to crystallise than in the Yemen. We should therefore probably have time to see what sort of picture was going to emerge before we needed to recognise one or more Governments in the country or otherwise take a position. We should almost certainly not wish to intervene on one side or the other, especially since the Americans are committed to the present regime and might carry the odium of successfully supporting them without us having to interfere. Our ultimate objective would be to establish good relations quickly with whatever regime controlled the Eastern Province. As the most likely coup would be a palace revolution or a revolt in the Hejaz, resulting in a regime more or less similar to the present one, we should have sufficient credit left from our provision of military advisers and technical advice of other sorts to render this objective reasonably easy of attainment.”


Collaborating with dictators who do our bidding over Israel and pay us with petrodollars may seem like the cheap and easy option for the West. It has been policy for a long time and it has certainly worked out well for many western firms and governments, not to mention hookers, hitmen and hackers. The impending Aramco float is set to be a bonanza for investment bankers in London and New York. But it is not looking like such a good bargain for the rest of us any more.

There are several reasons why: above all, preventing other human beings from enjoying basic freedoms runs against core Western principles which is corrupting and destroys faith in democracy. It has lead to a rise of anti-Islamic populism in the West and the development of a two-tier system in which Arabs and Muslims are second class citizens.

As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden in 1854:

“Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may.... There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade...”

Secondly, depending on dictators to solve our security problems and tackle the Jihad phenomenon is self-defeating because as Mohammed Al Jarman explained it is these regimes’ security services, clerics and media that caused this problem in the first place and so they just make it worse. This is why despite the West deploying astronomical quantities of resources since Al Qaeda first reared its head in 1998 Jihadi groups have expanded on every metric since. Back then the Jihad movement consisted of a few groups in Afghanistan at the far end of the Islamic spectrum. Today they are a spectrum in themselves, a rich and growing multitude spread all over the world, each more radical than the last, with better military capabilities, governance, public outreach programmes, media, finance and overall ability to recruit and kill than ever before. Europe is experiencing mounting waves of attacks. The bomb at Parsons Green Tube station on 15 September was the fifth in the UK this year and at least seven other significant plots are known to have been foiled, making it the most sustained period of terror activity in England since the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s.

Clearly the West’s colossal attempts to combat the problem of Jihad have been worse than useless. Worse still, siding with the counter-revolution puts the West directly in harm’s way because it makes violence against western interests condonable. “Why?” many people still ask after each bombing, but the answer is clear: backing despots, as well as invading and occupying Arab countries, invites an armed response and if the shoe was on the other foot the West would do it back and worse too. It already does anyway.

The fact is Arabs and Muslims are too numerous and the world is too integrated for there to be a security-military-surveillance solution to the problem of Islamic militancy. Responding with violence just normalises violence and gives succour to exactly the kind of radical groups the West is trying to combat. The long-term psychological effect of western policy on Arab and Muslim society is creating a collective sense of anxiety and fear that will continue long after these regimes are gone. Just as North Korea became an anti-western dictatorship only after it was carpet-bombed by the US for three years and Iran became virulently anti-western only after the US instigated a coup d'état so the West is now building its worst Jihadi nightmare in the Arab world with its own hands.

The only long-term solution is a complete change of strategy. Jihad is a Sunni Muslim problem with a Sunni Muslim solution. It is political and it lies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. If these two Arab giants had a more normal and democratically-inclined political environment and normal levels of freedom then there would be no room for organisations like IS and Al Qaeda and they would simply disappear. But before this can happen people in those countries need to be able to choose their own leaders, as in democratic countries around the world, and that requires a complete rethink of one hundred years of Western policy towards the whole Arab and Muslim world and Israel.



Hugh Miles is an award-winning author and freelance journalist. His recent work includes the BBC TV documentary “Kidnapped! Saudi Arabia’s Missing Princes” which was broadcast last month. Please see for more details.

The full book will be released on the 23rd October on Global Policy and through the Arab Digest. 

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