Strategic studies

Emirates withdrawal from Yemen

(Reasons and consequences)

On 8th of July 2019, United Arab Emirates declared the reduction and redeployment of its troops in Yemen, and the transition from military case to the strategy of achieving the peace. The unofficial declaration has provoked a widespread controversy in the Western and Arabian official circles, as a result of the timing, purpose and consequences on Yemen’s future, alongside with its impact on the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia which has begun in 2015. Such coalition that formed for announced objectives revolved around defeating the coup against the legitimate government in Yemen, maintaining the state’s institutions, and restoring the stability in whole the country.

Emirates’ declaration suggested that there is a shift in the strategy pursued by Emirates in Yemen, as it has come in the light of tension in the regional landscape in the Arabian Sea, following the escalating tension between United States of America and Iran, besides the growing threat of Ansar Allah (Houthis) that increased the level of risks on maritime traffic in the main waterways of the region such as Bab al-Mandeb and Hormuz Straits. Especially after the last demonstration of combat capabilities through the developed winged-cruise missiles and remotely piloted aircrafts, which targeted oil installations in both Saudi Arabia and Emirates on 14th of May 2019, such attacks imposed a case of security risk along the southern border of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In the course of the landscape complications, several questions are raised about the strategic intent behind the reduction of the number of Emirati forces in Yemen, as it came synchronically with many regional changes in the region, in addition the emergence of critical junctures within Yemeni crisis itself. There are also a questions remaining about the indications of the timing of the declaration, as it occurred at a time when the government of Abu Dhabi, after the lapse of four year of its engagement in Arab coalition’s operations, has achieved political and economic gains in the regions that it has increased its presence; such as the southern areas of Yemen, the west coast ports on the Red Sea coast, and the strategic port city of Aden. Is this declaration indicates to its satisfaction of what achieved of geopolitical interests during the past years? Then there is no need for a significant military presence of its troops, especially it has established a combination of irregular forces pledging the loyalty for the Emirates in managing and protecting its areas of influence in the south of Yemen, or there were other reasons.

On the other hand, Emirates is being accused that; it seeks through its last declaration, to deflect the pressures and accusations against it. Such accusations that; came from domestic Yemeni tribes that do not agree with its behaviours and accuse Emirates of undermining Yemeni legitimacy efforts and the deviation from the coalition’s objectives, or the accusations that; came from international entities that accuse Emirates of human rights violations, they also bear it a part of responsibility for the biggest humanitarian crisis in the recent century.

In the same context, there was a general perception that the purpose behind the declaration of reduction the troops, could be attributed to internal reasons in the Yemeni crisis such as; the growing awareness of prolongation of the conflict, the impossibility of military settlement, and the high-cost of the war. The aforesaid reasons pushed Emirates to pursue a new tactic in disclaiming its declared commitments with the coalition, and move towards maintaining the individual gains through its affiliated groups in the region in preparation to push the people of southern region to go for secession of the south from the north, as did happen in 1990s.

Despite all assumptions mentioned above, it is difficult to weight one reason over the others without reviewing the recent developments, which Yemeni crisis has experienced just weeks before the UAE’s declaration of the gradual anticipated withdrawal or redeployment. In addition to; knowing the religions of military distribution and deployment of UAE’s forces in Yemen, regions of withdrawal, and considering its vital importance, up to the nature of the motives for such a transformation, besides its consequences on the future of the coalition and the fate of Yemen within the international efforts for a political solution. Especially after the optimism surrounding Stockholm’s agreement that signed by the parties to the conflict under the auspices of the United Nations in 2018, to determine the fate of the city of Al Hodaida[1]. Despite a lapse of one year of the agreement, and the avoidance of parties to the agreement to implement its whole provisions, it managed to reduce the pace of military operations. And despite the non-application of the agreement, the United Nations Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is still counting on its revival as a main way out to end the war and push all parties to reach comprehensive political settlement.

Distribution and deployment


Since the UAE’s intervention in Yemen, it has relied on a deployment plan and distribution for its forces in a regions located along the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, as they are a vital regions by which it can establish an alternative ports for the international Strait of Hormuz, such as the port of Aden, where it perceives as a strategic goal if it managed to linking the port with Dubai Ports International through reviving the operating agreement that has been canceled in 2012 [2], or through extending its influence over the same port and placing such port under its direct control. Furthermore, its relentless pursuit to extend its influence and control over the essential Sea-lanes passages. The map below illustrates how the alternative port plan has become under implementation[3].

After two years of Arab coalition operations, the Emirates become able to achieve a large military presence and deployment, especially inside the military bases and command centers in coastal areas off the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, including major regions and sub-regions having a geopolitics importance such as the governorate of Aden, the port of Al-Makha of Taiz governorate, Mukalla airport in the Hadramout governorate, the port of Balhaf in Shabwah governorate in the north, and in the south in Marib governorate; as well as the presence in the temporary capital of Aden in the regions of Abyan, Lahj, al-Dhale, and Taiz.

Furthermore, it has a strong presence in the western coast of Yemen that including the governorates of Al Hodaida, Hajjah, al-Mahwit and Rimah, alongside with its presence in the southern islands overlooking Al-Mahra governorate, Socotra, Hadramout region, and Al-Makha city [4]. In the same context, Emirates also has established a group of armed factions affiliated to it and under its supervision, where these forces were established through training programs, whether inside Yemen or inside Emirates in the period between 2015 and 2016. Such armed factions was entrusted with different duties based on the objectives and interests intended to be achieved (Amaleqa Brigades, National Resistance Forces, Security Belt Forces, Elite Forces of Hadramout, Joint Forces, Elite Forces of Shabwah) [5]. Their distribution is illustrated as in Figure below:

The objectives of the intervention in Yemen War


 The Emirati role in the Yemen war is predominantly associated with the private interest at the expense of the common interest of the Arab coalition. After more than four years of the conflict, it becomes evident how the influence map is divided into a regions for the Saudi’s influence and Emirati’s influence, the Saudi influence mostly concentrated in the north. As for Emirates, its presence concentrated in the south and some ports in the north and the western coast. It is now apparent, however, that the Emirati’s efforts came to achieve other goals behind its participation in the Arab coalition. It exploited the state of chaos as an entrance to intervene in the war, besides the political and security vacuum that created by the fall of the capital Sanaa in the hands of Houthis in 2014, and the coup against the legitimacy. For the aforesaid reasons that led Emirates to achieve a series of strategic objectives. The first objective is the attempt to reach the Indian Ocean through the port of Aden, and extending its influence over the southern ports in order to tighten the control over the maritime traffic in the Arabian Sea. It also aim at weakening the maritime pioneering role of the Sultanate of Oman, as Emirates paid more attention to the geopolitical dimension of the areas connected with it by sea and land. There are more than one land access between Oman and Emirates, therefor; Oman fear that the growing influence of Emirates in the south of Yemen might undermine its investment projects in the region [6]. The access to the Indian Ocean and the port of Aden was not only intended for weaken the Omani role, but Emirates also sought to increase its geopolitical influence beyond the Arabian Sea up to the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aden. In addition to, controlling six petroleum sectors three of them located off the coast of the Red Sea, and the others located in the Gulf of Aden, where the Yemeni government had previously granted the exploration rights to French company Total in 2013 [7]. Among the other objectives, Emirates are striving to establish a parallel state in the south of Yemen in preparation for the declaration of the secession, if the international efforts moved to adopt that scenario as a solution to end the conflict in Yemen. Perhaps the aim behind this approach is the Emirati’s desire to take the advantage of the wealth and natural resources in the rich region where it is under its control, it aims at using such resources in the framework of the international competitiveness partnership with Britain and the United States of America. According to some sources, the UAE is considered as the western proxy in Yemen to pass the project of the aforesaid in the region and gain a foothold in the concessions and the petroleum investments, and benefit from Yemeni’s ports in the maritime traffic [8]. Emirates managed through the policy of polarization to attract the tribes of the south, political currents and political figures, to form a common alliances that weakened the efforts of legitimate government on the one hand, at the same time it supported the people of the south through the formation of the UAE-backed Transitional Council on the other hand, which was established on May 11, 2017. [9]

The Emirati efforts did not disregard its desire to strengthen its political position in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the League of Arab States. Although the Council lacks the effectiveness of Arabian sovereign decision, its presence is a symbolic necessity in the view of Emirates as it seek through such Council, to increase its credit in the region through the adoption of Arab League to objectives of combating the terrorism, by which Emirates are seeking to advance its strategic interests in the region in line with other countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as Western countries.

 Some are of the opinion that Emirates wishes to avoid all the suspicions of its support to some terrorist groups such as; the accusations levelled at Emirates in the Libyan crisis for its support for extremist groups for the purpose of creating the chaos and undermining Libyan stability, through the accusation of its support to General Khalifa Haftar in his battles against what he described as terrorists [10].


Withdrawal regions (reasons and motivations)

In the absence of complete information about the regions where the Emirates has withdrawn from them, in particular; there is no accurate statistics on the forces present, except the number issued in 2014 that estimated the forces at five thousand fighters [11]. According to some sources, the withdrawal regions included the withdrawal of Patriot batteries from the Serwah base in Marib and some heavy equipment that replaced by Saudi forces [12]. Some local sources monitored a military movements in Aden, including the departure of vehicles and military vehicles believed to be owned by the UAE in the city of Aden, these movements followed by the arrival of other vehicles through the port of “Al-Zeit” such vehicles has been relocated to the coalition base in the Shaab area. In the light of the ambiguity and secrecy, some sources confirmed the reduction of the Emirati forces at the forward operations base in the Eritrean city of Assab, and the evacuation of al-Khokha camp and a large part of southern Al Hodaida, but the management affiliated to Emirates remained through (Security Belt and Elite Forces) [14].

Despite the partial reduction of the Emirates forces in these areas, it is noted that these areas are not vital compared to the southern areas, where there was no any relocation to the forces. In the contrary, the Emirates has maintained its forces along the southern regions and its distribution is shown in Figure 15.

The current distribution confirms that the goal of the withdrawal is to redeploy and relocate the forces according to a new strategy in dealing with the Yemeni crisis under the slogan of moving towards peace, in a manner commensurate with the circumstances and changes in Arab and regional landscape, which could explain the reasons and motives of the new Emirati decision according to the following:

  1. The decision to withdraw the Emirati forces from Yemen was not taken as a result of the recent developments in the Arabian Sea, but it backs to two years ago, where the Yemeni landscape witnessed a military escalation in the port and city of Al Hodaida that considered the most violent escalation since 2015, when the government of Abu Dhabi was seeking to resolve the fate of the city as a culmination of its economic objectives, and the implementation of the plan of alternatives to control the last seaports of the Western Coast in Yemen off the Red Sea in order to strengthen the status of Dubai Ports International based on the equation of imposing the influence and competition on the Red Sea and international maritime trade lanes [16]. However, the difference in the visions between Emirates and its ally Saudi, and the involvement of the international community in the matter has prevented the battle to be resolved in favor of any party, in addition to; the cessation of acts under the signing of the Stockholm agreement. All the aforesaid factors forced Emirates to withdraw a part of its military equipment out-of-theatre of the operations, which led to a decrease in the pace of battles on the most fronts by more than 70%. Accordingly, the Emirates practically begun to reconsider the matter in Yemen according to the following:
  • Reconsidering the course of relations and common interest with Saudi in Yemen, especially after the latter put pressure on the legitimate government of Yemen to sign the Stockholm agreement, which prevent Emirates from resolving the battle in its favor [17].
  • Full evaluation of the international situation, and formulating an alternative plans for the purpose of maintaining control of the fate of southern Yemen and its seaports, after it has ascertained that there is no international desire to introduce a political solution and a settlement that satisfies all parties to the conflict.
  • Reconsidering the results of the battle of Al Hodaida, and conducting a comprehensive evaluation to the region of military distribution, in order to develop strategic plans through which it can complete its projects in Yemen and ensure the survival of its influence in the future.
  1. The circumstances that emerged between Saudi and Emirates prior to the announcement of the withdrawal in the issue of “Socotra”, prompted Emirates for the pragmatic thinking individually apart from the Saudi vision, that was the reason for the subject of the redeployment for the following determinant:

  • The Emirates is attempting to compensate its losses in the battle of Al Hodaida, as it unilaterally moved to seize the important island overlooking the Indian Ocean that are close to the African continent most notably Socotra and Shabwah, but it failed after the objection of the legitimate government, which filed a complaint through the Yemen mission to the United Nations, the mission accused Emirates of illegality of its presence in Socotra. At the same time, Saudi supported the position of the legitimate government, Saudi also was a mediator and its role as a mediator managed to reach an agreement to withdraw the Emirati forces out of the airport and the port of Scorotra [18]
  1. The differences between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh governments has erupted and escalated since 2015 according to the following:

  • There are different priorities between both sides in determining the enemy number one. Saudi in its turn, considers Iran-backed Ansar Allah (Houthis)its enemy number one then Jihadists and Islamist organizations, while Emirates considers the Islamist currents and radical groups the enemy number one then Ansar Allah (Houthis).
  • The difference in managing some battles as the battle of “Shabawah. In this battle, Saudi supported tribal sheikhs that supports the legitimate government, in their demand to exit the Emirati forces from the south of Yemen, while Saudi tended to restore the stability and attempted for control of the city of Al-Mahra. [19]

  1. the emerging developments in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, as a result of the escalation that erupted between US and Iran in the region, such escalation caused a state of confusion among the sides of coalition. Saudi had the greater share of Houthis’ threats on its southern borders, while Emirates had only one threat on the port Fujairah, which gave rise to question about why the strategy of Houthis preferred to threat Saudi, rather than Emirates, which declared at the height of the current escalation that; it will reduce its troops in Yemen. Such behaviours reflects the ulterior motives of Emirates, which adopt the policy of disassociation, prevent risks and maintain its interest free from the Arab coalition’s objectives. It should be noted, and according to a special sources, these measures strengthened the attempts made by Iran (the supporter of Houthis) to put more pressure on Emirates to withdraw from Yemen gradually, to avoid to be a target for Iran, if it decided to expand the scope of chaos in the region, for the purpose of putting a pressure on the US [20].
  2. The decision to withdraw from Yemen that has been taken by Emirates came to as a desire; to appease the international pressure, and divert attention from the accusations directed against it in cases such as; human rights violations, setting up secret prisons inside Yemen[21], and other accusations in relation to suspicious arms transactions in Libya and Sudan and building alliance with some terrorists groups.
  3. There is a secondary reason in the course of withdrawal motives, derived from its feeling that; it has carried out the duty with the Arab coalition and it paid a heavy price at the political, logistic level. It believes that, it has succeeded in the main mission in the south of Yemen as it pushed Houthis out of the south, and made a great efforts in the pursuit of terrorist organizations in the Arabian Peninsula through carrying out sorties with the United States of America. Therefore, there is no longer a need for a large number of ground forces inside Yemen, especially after the low level of military operations.

Furthermore, some observers believe that Emirates has been able to recruit and train 90 thousand fighter since 2016, establish a parallel state through which it could manage its areas of influence, and protect its economic and political interest in the western coast and southern regions. Thus, the declaration of departure comes to dissociate itself from any liability to the public opinion, if the raised the state of chaos in the south in preparation for cutting of a part of southern of Yemen and subordinate it under its control. Therefore, the decision to withdraw comes to avoid the responsibility to the international community, and leave the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone in the face of the international pressures and consequences.

The consequences on the Arab coalition and the future of Yemen

There is no doubt that the decision of Emirates, whether intended for redeployment, relocation, or the gradual withdrawal in the future, would cast a shadow on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, increase the pressure on it in the light of the apparent inability to face the threats of Iranian-backed Houthi, especially since the latter showed high combat capabilities through displaying advanced technologies owned or received from Iran, such as winged cruise missiles, remotely piloted aircrafts capable of striking targets within 1400 km in the depth of Saudi without the air defense system being able to detect it [22].

Furthermore, Saudi has failed in several previous attempts to reduce and deter the Houthis from threatening the security of the Kingdom. At the same time, the Emirates is providing the military and air force to the coalition, especially in fighting the terrorist organizations in the Arabian Peninsula, as it succeeded in expelling the Houthis from the city of Aden and the entire regions of the south.

Accordingly, the kingdom’s choices might be narrow after all the above mentioned of self-variables related to the Yemen crisis itself, and other variables related to the international variables in the region. As the attentions has been drawn to secure the maritime traffic, especially after the port of Hormuz was a target of maritime piracy between Iran and US allies in the Arabian Gulf’s region. If the Emirates continued in the policy of the gradual escape and alienation of Arab coalition’s goals, Saudi would have only two options:


The military choice


  • Further slipping in the military choice individually, awakening the fronts that has been suspended by a political decision such as Al Hodaida front through launching ground military actions, by witch it aims at closing the arms smuggling routes relating to Houthis, However; this choice remains unlikely to occur for the following reasons:
  • Saudi, in the ground battles, relies heavily on Emirates through the participation of Emirati special forces, or through the forces recruited by Emirates. For these reasons, as Emirates reduced its troops, and the new approach of militias to protect their own interests in their areas of influence, it will be difficult for the Kingdom to fill the vacuum of the human element, if it desired to continue the military actions.

  • Since the intervention of Arab coalition directly in Yemen war, it relied heavily on the air domination, as the coalition avoided to build the capabilities of Yemeni army and replaced this choice by a militias that it can dispense with them when necessary. The coalition also did not allow the legitimate government to have a real force that take over the responsibility for the liberated regions and gain more territories. As the Emirates played a major role in undermining its efforts in several regions, most recently when it left the city of Marib as open space for Houthis, after the withdrawal of Patriot system [23].

  • The United States and European Union’s opposition to any new military escalation in Yemen to preserve the efforts of political settlement, and not to allow the parties to the conflict to cause the collapse of such efforts. On the other hands, United States fear that any attempt for escalation in Yemen could lead to the increase of Iran support to Houthis, and Iran might move forward targeting its interests in other fronts such as Syria and Iraq.

  • Saudi Air Force is unable to prevent the threats of Houthis, as it unable to resolve the conflict in its favor after more than thousands of bombing sorties, which prove it cannot unilaterally pursue the military choice in the short term.

The return to negotiation


The Arab coalition’s inability to achieve its stated goals since four years, left Saudi semi-alone in the face of Houthis that has increased the frequency of its impact more than it was before the recent developments. Thus, may push Saudi to return to the path of direct negotiations with the Houthis, in order to calm the conflict and push the latter to stop threatening its security. This could lead to the return to zero point since the beginning of the negotiations between the parties in 2016, which known as Tehran Agreement, up to Yemeni peace efforts and the Stockholm agreement. After the events of 14th of May 2019, which was a turning point in the strategy of the Houthis, the Kingdom began reviving secret channels with Houthi leaders, such channels made through the British efforts as it held a secret talks ended in failure [24] because Houthis insisted on a conditions do not match with the aspiration of the Kingdom. The aforesaid raise a question about the possibility of Kingdom to contain Houthis after the last declaration of Emirates to reduce its forces, such declaration that reflect its desire for non-engagement in confrontation with Iran and preserving its oil installations. Trump administration as well seek to maintain its apparent position as it want to avoid any confrontation with Iran, to avoid igniting the entire region by Iran, so it may put pressure on the kingdom to engage it in talks with Houthi.

The major dilemma for Saudi still remain, that is not easy to go entirely with that choice and grant Houthis a concessions that cause it to lose all accomplishments obtained since 2015, and cause Saudi to lose it prestigious status in the region. Thus, The kingdom wants a comprehensive settlement for Yemen in a manner that ensures not to leave the landscape for Iran, and escape from Yemeni morass with a compatible equation. It is a possible and impossible demand according to the current developments.


According to what mentioned above, and through the path of Emirates movements in Yemen within the context of its efforts in the Arab coalition, and the adoption of special goals, it managed through its first strategy to achieve a series of geo-economic and political gains. This was apparent in the reasons of its intervention in Yemen, and the distribution and redeployment map as it extracted a range of political and economic gains, in response to the higher objectives and the growing role of the Abu Dhabi government in the Middle East and Africa. With the change in the international equation and the introduction of new variables in the Yemeni landscape, and the international and regional landscape in the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman, The United Arab Emirates has begun to change its policies in the region for fear of losing what it has achieved since the events of the Arab Spring 2011, then the choice of reducing the number of troops from Yemen and adopting the redeployment tactic appeared to be the first signs of its new strategy in the region.


“The opinions contained herein do not necessarily reflect Barq for Policies and Consultations’ view

Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved for Barq for Policies and Consultations








 UN, full text of the Stockholm Agreement, N- 13th of December 13, 2018, viewed 21-21 July 2019.


The new Arab, the UAE and the port of Aden, Dubai World return by military force, n – on November 25 – November 2017 – seen on 21 – July 2019.

[3] Meydan, Al Jazeera, a scheme for the distribution of UAE seaports for the purpose of controlling international observatory routes, seen July 22, 2019.


The map is seen for knowing the southern government in which the Emirates influence exists, Arab Research Center, viewed 21-21 July 2019.


The distribution of the Emirates armed military formations in Yemen and their military and political influence, seen on July 21-July 2019.


Al-Jazeera, the hidden conflict between Oman and Abu Dhabi, n. dated 2-12-2017, viewed 21-21 July 2019.


Window on Yemen, Total and Houthi Race for Control of Oil Ports, seen July 21 – 2019.

[8] An informed source, Britain and America facilitate the movement of the UAE in southern Yemen in accordance with the common interests. Recently, it has given some guidance which led to the declaration of withdrawal from some areas and the redeployment in other areas to divert attention from the international community.


BBC Southern Yemen Transitional Council (NTC), January 29, 2018.


Al-Sharq, Abu Dhabi Supports Terrorist Groups in Libya, dated 18-5-2019, seen 21-21 July 2019.


Middle East, Emirates withdraws its troops from Yemen, n – on July 11 – 2019, – seen on 22 – July 2019.


Al-Jazeera, did the Emirates withdraw its forces from Yemen, n – on 4-7-2019, seen on date, 22 – July 2019.


The New Arab, what behind the reduction of Emirati’s presence in Yemen, N. Date: 30- June 2019, viewed on 22-July 2019.


Emirates leaves Yemen, is this a trick or defeat, N. dated July 9, 2019, seen on July 22, 2019.

[15] Al-Istiqlal Newspaper, Map of Emirati Distribution in Yemen, seen on July 22nd, 2019.


Barq for Polices and consultations, Al Hodaida battle, control motives and settlement choices, On October 4, 2018, seen on 22 – July 2019.

[17] Special Yemeni sources confirmed that the kingdom attempted to put pressure on the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to sign the agreement to prevent the Emirates from imposing a fait accompli policy, especially after the accumulation of differences and discrepancy in the views Between the government of Abu Dhabi and its forces on the one hand, and the legitimate government and the Kingdom on the other hand, these disagreements back to 2016, after the hostility between the Emirates and Hadi governments increased, as Hadi removed political leaders and figures in the city of Aden affiliated with the Emirates axis, which was responded by Emirates through launching an escalation against Hadi’s government in the south, and it also formed an alliances adopting the secession choice among these alliances an Islamic groups oppose the direction of the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Besides the support for the formation of a separatist council in 2017.


Barq for Policies and Consultations, Yemeni Scene, Emirati Growing Influence in Yemen, seen 23th of July 2019.


The Military Council attacks the Emirates and its militias in the south, n – on 21-6-2019, seen on 23 – July 2019.

[20] Special source: the Emirates held secret talks with some of the Houthi leaders under the auspices of Tehran. It was agreed upon the avoidance of Emirates from the escalation in exchange for accepting the gradual withdrawal’s choice and the preservation of its areas of influence and gains in the region, through its forces in the southern regions, and some members of the Transitional Council, which has close ties with Iran because some of them were previously resident in Tehran.


Human Rights Watch, there are secret networks, secret detention facilities, Torture, and enforced disappearances in Yemen N.- 22-6- 2017, seen on 23- July 2019.


Gulf Online, in numbers how the Houthis were able to take the Saudi sky, n – on 2-7 2019, was seen on 23 – July 2019.


Al Estiqlal the Emirati’s withdrawal from Yemen, why it coincided with the explosion in the situation in Marib, seen on 23 – July 2019.


 Al-Jazeera, has the Saudis re-opened channels of communication with the Houthis, n-dated, 16-6- 2019, seen on 23- July 2019.

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