In celebration of 25 years of diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, Susan Novela interviews Ambassador of the UAE to South Africa, His Excellency Mahash Alhameli. Diplomatic Informer magazine
In celebration of 25 years of diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, Susan Novela interviews Ambassador of the UAE to South Africa, His Excellency Mahash Alhameli. Diplomatic Informer magazine

WATCH: South Africa and the UAE celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations

By SUSAN NOVELA Time of article published Nov 20, 2019

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In celebration of 25 years of diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, Susan Novela interviews Ambassador of the UAE to South Africa, His Excellency  Mahash Alhameli. 

How long have you been in South Africa and what are your impressions of the country? 

Firstly, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Pretoria.  I would like to express my deepest and most sincere appreciation to all our colleagues and friends in South Africa and to the Diplomatic Informer Magazine for affording me this platform to share my thoughts and experiences. 

Officially, I have been in South Africa for two and a half years. However, my first visits to this beautiful country date back to the late end 1980s, early 1990s. In addition to being the UAE’s representative in South Africa, I am privileged to be accredited to Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia as well. My impression of South Africa is an overwhelmingly positive one. I see South Africa as a strong, resilient and beautiful country - full of promise. South Africa’s story is an inspirational one. It tells of how a country with a very difficult past managed to overcome extreme injustice and inequality to become one of the most developed and progressive countries on the African continent. In this way, South Africa reminds me very much of my own country, which overcame its own set of challenges to become the successful state it is today. 

In my experience, South Africa is one of the most open and accommodating countries in the world, in terms of both government and society. It is a rich and diverse country, which is unique in its abundance of different languages, cultures and nationalities. Hence, it is indeed my great honour to be the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to South Africa.

Can you summarise for us the essence of the UAE's foreign policy? 

The UAE was founded on the principles of tolerance and openness towards different peoples and cultures; our principles stem from the state’s desire to build political, economic and social relations at an international level.  The UAE’s political leadership has adopted a vison of clear parameters and pillars, rooted in wisdom, moderation and firmness, for managing relations with the rest of the world. The diplomatic apparatus of the state has worked to move on this vision, in accordance with the foundations and principles from which it is based. 

The move to expand on the vison has helped the distinguished quality of our diplomatic apparatus, headed by His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, to reap the political fruits and positive results of tireless diplomacy. This was launched in accordance with a well-thought-out vision, into spaces I welcome and have contributed seriously to managing the crises of.  The government's principles include a fundamental belief in justice in international dealings between countries, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and the pursuit, where possible, of peaceful resolution of disputes, with strong support for international institutions, such as the United Nations. By supporting these institutions, the UAE seeks to strengthen the rule of international law, support the implementation of international conventions, and protect the interests of the young and vulnerable in the Gulf region. And in the wider Arab world, the UAE has sought to strengthen cooperation and resolution of disagreement through dialogue. The United Arab Emirates is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, as well as the United Nations and its agencies, an observer member of the African Union and the African Parliament.

The UAE enjoys a strong and growing relationship with the African continent, supported by the vision of the UAE's Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and continued by the country's wise leadership of President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his brother, Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. This vision seeks to strengthen ties between the Middle East and Africa in order to achieve peace and stability. The strategic relationship with African countries also aims to actively support sustainable development efforts on the continent, and it is within this context that we continuously explore avenues for enhanced cooperation.

Within the South African context, our policy is guided by the visionary leadership of both countries. The policy is very much consensus-based and encapsulates the desire of both states to continue economic development for the benefit of their peoples. In recognition of our common views on a number of key global and regional issues and our strategic partnership, both countries have agreed to work together on key imperatives including: 

Supporting economic growth by promoting cooperation in a number of priority areas including infrastructure, human resources, manufacturing, processing industry, agriculture, tourism, blue economy, finance, job creation and poverty reduction.

Addressing common international security threats, including terrorism-related threats, combating extremism, providing humanitarian assistance to those in need and exploring opportunities for international development.

Connecting the public and private sectors in our countries in order to promote trade and investment.

We have also focused on promoting cooperation in a number of priority areas including: infrastructure, human resources, manufacturing and processing industry, agriculture, tourism, the blue economy, finance, security, people-to-people exchange and international cooperation. Through these areas, we endeavour to support South Africa’s efforts towards economic development, job creation and poverty reduction. In addition, we hope to build our own knowledge and experience of the African continent through our engagement with South Africa and the surrounding states. Our policy also has a strong economic focus, and works to connect the public and private sectors of our countries in order to promote trade and investment.  

How would you characterise the state of diplomatic relations between South Africa and the UAE after 25 years? What are the achievements and challenges?

Firstly, we are delighted to share that indeed in 2019, we have achieved the 25-year milestone of diplomatic relations between the UAE and South Africa. I would like to share with you an excerpt from a letter by the President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan to His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa on the occasion of the latter’s inauguration. This message is a testament to the enduring, warm friendship between our countries. 

 “On the occasion of the 25-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and the Republic of South Africa, I would like personally to convey my heartfelt congratulations on the strong relations and friendship that have strengthened the ties between our two peoples in various fields. Our friendship and partnership began twenty-five years ago.” 

His Highness Sheikh Khalifa ended the letter by saying: 

“We have many common interests and I hope that we can work together for the mutual benefit of our two nations.” 

The spirit encapsulated in this communication between our presidents characterises the state of our relations with South Africa. The relationship has progressed very wellwell, and we have always sought areas of common interest in security, education, economic development and others. 

Among the key achievements, the UAE and South Africa have signed a number of bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding in the fields of justice, social development, security and trade. Moreover, high-level engagement between our governments has increased in recent years. In July 2018, the UAE was honoured with a state visit by His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa, shortly after his election as president. This was followed by the visit of His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, to South Africa in October 2018 for the second UAE-South Africa Joint Commission. We have also conducted a number of various ministerial and other exchanges hosted by both countries. Furthermore, we have managed to facilitate progress in trade and investment. We count these as significant achievements, and see them as testaments to the commitment of our countries to work closely together. 

In addition, the UAE and South Africa have engaged closely in multilateral platforms, such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the United Nations and other similar bodies. We have also successfully linked with the Pan-African Parliament based in South Africa and hope to broaden our engagement with such bodies on an ongoing basis. At the same time, we will support South Africa to enable it to play a greater role in Africa’s peace, development and security.

It is important to note however that our work has transcended political and economic spheres over the last few years. We have interacted greatly with South Africa’s civil society, including various research institutions and foundations, where we endeavour to understand and engage with them on social issues. Additionally, the UAE has also undertaken significant humanitarian work in South Africa and other regional countries, helping us to forge close bonds with communities. Each year the Embassy undertakes various feeding projects across the country, from Cape Town through Durban to Johannesburg. We have also provided financial and other support to shelters, hospitals, children’s hospitals and such other causes. In 2017, a project very close to my heart was the total renovation of the Masakhane Primary School in Meadowlands by the Embassy. In 2017, we spent over R5 million in humanitarian support to South Africa. In 2018, we were pleased to more than double this figure, with total support exceeding R11 million. We are positive that 2019 will see an even larger increase in support. During the tragic Hurricane Eddie earlier this year, the UAE was one of the first countries to provide assistance through direct flights to assist in relief efforts, which were praised by government leaders of in the affected countries.

The UAE has provided emergency aid to the value of US$7 million as at 31 March 2019 in response to the natural disaster caused by Cyclone Idai, which affected the Republics of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe respectively. Furthermore, the UAE provided to the Republic of Zimbabwe aid amounting to US$2.7 million.  

What can you tell us about the role of women and youth in the UAE, given its criticality in countries all over the world, including in South Africa?

Regionally, the UAE leads the way in terms of women’s empowerment and youth development. We believe that a society’s success is dependent on the contributions of these very important groups, and this is not new but rather goes back to the time of the UAE’s founding father, the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed, who was ahead of his time when he said: “The woman is half of the society; any country which pursues development should not leave her in poverty or illiteracy.” 

Continuing on this path today is Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the Mother of our Nation, who established the General Women’s Union in 1973 to promote women’s empowerment and leadership within the country. Sheikha Fatima has played a key role in elevating the status of women in the UAE, especially at community level. Her advocacy has led to increased access to quality education and economic opportunities for women since the formation of our federation.

The National Strategy for the Empowerment and Leadership of Women in the UAE 2015 – 2021 provides a framework for the government sector, the private sector and civil society institutions to develop plans and programmes of action that will place the UAE among the most advanced countries in the field of women empowerment and leadership. 

Our government has taken many steps to ensure that women play active and important roles within the government, and we have taken steps to ensure that they are afforded space to thrive within the private and other sectors. We have endeavoured to include women in roles that can shape our economy and society. The UAE is the first country in the region to enact legislation requiring board members of every Government Company and Agency to ensure women’s empowerment. And our government has taken many steps to ensure that women play active and important roles within the government, and we have taken steps to ensure that they have room to thrive within the private sector and other sectors. We have sought to involve women in roles that can shape our economy and society. For example, Dr Amal Al Qubaisi became the first leader of the National Assembly in the UAE and the wider Arab world after her appointment in 2015. She had previously made history in 2006 as the first woman elected to the Federal National Assembly, and in 2011 she was appointed Vice-President of the Federal National Council. In 2019, in October 2008, she was sworn in as the first female judge.

Today, the UAE has come a long way and has called for Emirati women to occupy 50% of the country's Federal National Council seats. In December 2018, our Cabinet introduced a number of new laws and policies to take this empowerment and representation even further. These range from women’s participation in the judiciary, through protection of women from domestic violence, to pre and post-natal care for women.

According to the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report’s Competitiveness Report, the UAE has achieved first place in the Arab equal pay index, thus achieving better gender parity in leadership and management positions indicators. In the private sector, particularly in business, there are about 23 000 Emirati women entrepreneurs, who run projects worth more than US$13 billion and occupy 15% of the boards of directors of the country’s chambers of commerce and industry. 

Emirati women hold diplomatic positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. As of 2019, there were 234 Emirati women in the diplomatic and consular corps at the ministry’s headquarters, in addition to 42 women serving in the foreign service in the UAE’s foreign missions. There are seven female Ambassadors in the diplomatic services in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. 

Women in the UAE now make up 46.6% of the total workforce, 66% of public sector jobs, of which 30% are in decision-making positions – as well as 15% in technical and academic roles. Moreover, Emirati women make up 70% of all university graduates, with 56% of these graduates being from the faculties of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Furthermore, 50% of the employees at the UAE’s Space Programme are women. 

Similarly, the UAE has pushed forward the empowerment and development of our Youth, ensuring that they have access to opportunities, which will allow them to thrive, voice their opinions and contribute to our country’s development. Aside from ensuring access to education for our Youth, the UAE has a number of other initiatives such as support for youth entrepreneurship. Moreover, our Minister of State for Youth Affairs, Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrouei, was the youngest minister appointed in the world at the age of 22 in 2016. 

In the area of youth development and advancement; we should never underestimate the power of young innovators. This is an issue about which I am passionate. We know that the new generation of entrepreneurs will be the leaders of tomorrow, so we must strive to do all can we do to help them reach their goals and drive us all towards a better future.

In line with this vision, a progressive initiative developed in cooperation with the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs called the UAE Government Leaders "UAE Youth," targeting 21 – 30 year olds was forged.

Once accepted into the eight-month long course, young people are privy to a syllabus of workshops and support. The core features of this particular scheme include everything from "social skills" and "future thought" to "happiness and positivity" and "global challenges." The notion here is that the course will allow innovative young people to have a rounded education in business. This is just one of many initiatives by the UAE to equip and empower our youth to achieve success in their chosen fields. 

In terms of trade and investment, what has been achieved and what can we expect from the pipeline?

The two nations share strong and growing economic relations. Our comprehensive strategic partnership has maintained strong momentum over recent years and our bilateral relations are now at their historical best.

South Africa has become the UAE’s biggest trading partner and the most important destination for investment in Africa. The UAE has remained as one of South Africa’s largest trading partners for the last 25 years, with imports reaching around US$2.9 billion in 2018. The total non-oil foreign trade between the UAE and South Africa exceeded US$3.8 billion in 2018, a growth figure of 19%.

The UAE believes in South Africa’s economic importance; that is why during His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa’s visit to the UAE in July of last year, the UAE announced US$10 billion direct investment in infrastructure, energy, tourism and mining among other sectors within the South African economy over the next few years. I am certain that in the coming years, you will see an increasing number of projects that the UAE will have invested in.

The two countries also held annual SA-UAE Business Forums over the last two years. This year’s Forum, which took place in Johannesburg, saw broadened participation from the UAE. UAE-based companies were provided with the knowledge and networks necessary to do business in South Africa. The UAE and South Africa enjoy an excellent relationship at a government-to-government level and we are looking to extend such relations to the business communities of the two countries. 

On the side-lines of the recent business Forum, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Etihad Credit Insurance and Export Credit Insurance Corporation of South Africa, the focus of which is enhancing trade and investment, supporting business relations between the two nations through sharing of information and best practices for efficient cross-border trade. The MoU explores opportunities in insurance, co-insurance for exports, sharing commercial and credit information on buyers, facilitation of fund access for small and medium enterprises, and enhancement of trade between the two countries. 

The government has worked to create a sustainable environment where doing business is easy, thus attracting investors from around the world. The UAE is not only one of the countries where doing business is easy, but also has great government support to investors and businesses wanting to do business in the country. 

Why is South Africa a good investment destination for UAE companies? What sectors are most attractive and why?

South Africa is one of Africa’s largest economies with a relatively stable economic climate. It has the ideal support systems with many business prospects and good infrastructure, a strong judicial system, advanced technology and specialist skills, among others. 

The South African government under the leadership of His Excellency President Ramaphosa has prioritised trade and investment as the major drivers of the nation’s economic growth, as stated in his stimulus package of September 2018. This was reaffirmed in the State of the Nation Address this year with a major focus on the need for infrastructure investment. This showed the potential that South Africa has as an investment destination. It has many great sectors with substantial potential that include: a great agricultural sector that still has prospects for expansion; the mining sector that supplies major commodities to the world, the services sector as the nation is growing, innovation in the technology sector and the manufacturing sector that is underpinned by export hubs in Durban and Cape Town.  

The nation’s strategic position at the tip of Africa makes it a key location for opportunities both within and outside its borders as a gateway into the rest of Africa. In 2018, South Africa concluded a continental free trade agreement with the rest of the African countries for a fundamental transformation of African economies and to consolidate the continent’s position in global trade.

Foreign direct investment is critical to this effort, because it strengthens productive capacity through transfer of technology and knowledge, the creation of job opportunities, improvement in human capital and enhanced production processes.

What sectors is the UAE looking for South Africans to invest in in the UAE? What can South Africa export to the UAE?

The UAE is looking at investment in a multiplicity of sectors that include: Education, Manufacturing, Energy, Healthcare, Water, Transportation, Technology and Aerospace. The great thing is that these are also priority sectors for the South African government, thus further aligning both the nations’ interests. The UAE not only offers opportunities for export but also offers the same for business investment within the same sectors in the UAE, boosted by government support for businesses. The UAE offers different opportunities to prospective businesses and traders in the form of Free Trade Zones and mainland support, allowing them to choose which option they want to pursue to trade and invest in the UAE. 

UAE airlines are world renowned; what can you tell us about the presence of these airlines in South Africa? 

The UAE is home two of the world’s largest airlines – Emirates and Etihad; and is a global hub for tourism, trade and economy. Airlines operate many flights between the UAE and South Africa every day. Opening the way for aviation promotion discussions between the UAE and South Africa by increasing and meeting the demand for travel.

Emirates Airlines has been operating in South Africa since 1995 and has enjoyed an extremely fruitful relationship with South Africa ever since. This relationship has resulted in tremendous growth that has helped boost our economic contribution to South Africa, job creation and overall impact on local industry and trade. With a fleet of more than 265 aircraft, Emirates Airlines aircraft currently fly to over 155 destinations in more than 80 countries around the world. Over 1,500 Emirates flights depart Dubai each week on their way to destinations on six continents, and the Emirates network is expanding constantly. It has been gratifying to help facilitate the movement of business and leisure travellers from around the world to ‘destination South Africa’ via our Dubai hub. Emirates codeshare partnership with South African Airways bears testimony to Emirates’ commitment to the country. In addition to this, the Emirates Group employs over 1,000 South African nationals who are continuously contributing to Emirates’ success globally. Today, Emirates operates 8 flights per day between South Africa and Dubai.

Etihad Airways is equally impressive; although the airline is only 16 years old, it has built a stellar global reputation, primarily because of its long-haul flights on new planes such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A380 superjumbo. Etihad Airways is also known for its extravagant business and first-class offerings, such as The Residence, a US$23,000 ticket that comes with a literal apartment in the sky.

Etihad Airways commenced flights to Johannesburg in 2005 with just two flights a week. Flights have now increased to daily connectivity (with 2 flights a day). The introduction of Etihad’s state-of-the-art fleet will only further enhance the inflight experience for travelers to and from South Africa. 

Both airlines have been well-received and serve as a source of pride for the UAE. We hope to see further successes for both Emirates and Etihad in South Africa in the coming years.

We know that the UAE is a tourism and shopping Mecca for much of Africa. What can South Africa learn about becoming as impressive a tourist destination as the UAE?

The UAE is focused on becoming a centre for global multi-cultural diversity. Equally important to trade in goods and services are the people going back and forth between the UAE and South Africa, building relationships and learning about each other’s cultures. 

There is an abundance of tourist attractions on offer in the UAE. A key point of attraction is that the UAE holds something for everyone, and is enjoyable for families, students, etc, depending on individual needs and tastes. Each Emirate offers a unique tourist experience embedded in tradition, with a mix of the ancient and the modern.  The country has also invested in becoming the global cultural axis. We recently launched the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, attracting art and cultural artefacts from across the world. 

This is part of the many advancements that include: easy access through the national airline, fast travel processing, advancement of quality services, zero crime policy, great architecture that mixes the history with technological advancement and great cultural diversity.  

We know that Expo 2020 is set to take place in Dubai next year. This will surely increase the number of visitors to the UAE in 2020. What can you tell us about this mega-event?

Indeed, Expo 2020 will be taking place in Dubai next year under the theme: “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” The Expo, which will take place over 173 days, is going to be a meeting place of innovation, science, technology, business, education, art and culture, to name but a few. This event aims at bringing individuals together under a platform where they can share ideas and experiences in a unique, fun setting. The 2020 Expo will certainly be a special one as it is the first one that will be hosted in the Middle East, Africa and Asia region.

To date, 192 countries have confirmed their participation in Expo 2020, including South Africa, and we are expecting 25 million visitors to the Expo site, with 70% of visitors projected to come from outside the UAE. 

In line with our vision of sustainability, once the Expo is over, the site and its structures will form part of District 2020, which will comprise 65,000 sqm of residential space and 135,000 sqm of commercial space in a location that will be home to world-class innovation, educational, cultural and entertainment facilities. 

What are some of cultural exchanges that the two countries can engage in and develop?

I think the field of art and culture has massive potential for cooperation. My time in South Africa has revealed that South Africa is rich in native art, music, dance and literature. The UAE, too, has its fair share of history and heritage that it expresses through art. I think it would be most valuable to link the fields of art and culture between the UAE and South Africa because at present, I do not think that our citizens have sufficient awareness of what the other country offers. I think that meaningful linkages can be formed among our artists and also among our museums and institutions responsible for this field.

What are your thoughts about the UAE assuming the chairmanship of IORA in 2020? What will be on the agenda?

The UAE is looking forward to its coming tenure as Chair of IORA. South Africa has done a great job over the last year and a half and we look forward to building upon South Africa’s successes. The UAE will focus on a number of areas including the ocean economy, which we feel can be significantly developed while focusing on maritime security and women’s empowerment.

What can the two countries do jointly on the Immigration front to make tourism and doing business easier?

South Africa is indeed a popular tourist destination for UAE travellers and will become more so with the recent easing of immigration procedures between the countries through the waiving of visa requirements for UAE citizens. On the UAE side, the visa regulations are relatively simple, with a quick turnaround time so as to facilitate trade and tourism. Our government is always improving itself and looking at new and innovative ways to simplify such processes.

What, in your opinion, motivated the Visa waiver for UAE nationals visiting South Africa, as announced by the South African Department of Home Affairs?

I would like to begin by extending my sincere gratitude and appreciation to South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation which allowed the Visa waiver for UAE nationals visiting South Africa, effective from 15 August 2019. 

The advantages of the waiver will be of mutual benefit to South Africa and the UAE. Visa-free access for UAE citizens travelling to South Africa will provide significant opportunities for the expansion of UAE investment in the country and contribute to an increase in the number of UAE tourists travelling to South Africa; providing vital returns to the tourism and global services sectors. We are confident that the Visa waiver will open up the potential for discussions around aviation links between the UAE and South Africa, through an increase in travel demand. 

The UAE passport is the most powerful passport in the Middle East. The passport ranks number 1 in the world, including the Middle East where the holder can enter 176 countries (including the Schengen area in Europe) without the need for a visa and we have made efforts to achieve the visa waiver agreement, which has enhanced the entry of our citizens into these countries for commercial travel and tourism purposes. UAE nationals have realised that South Africa has many business and leisure areas. The exception from Visa requirements to enter South Africa, will certainly impact on expanding investment and increasing the number of tourists, which will ultimately strengthen the interaction and encourage the links between our two countries. 

Have you had an opportunity to experience tourism in South Africa? What have been the highlights?

I have indeed! South Africa is blessed with a beautiful, vast landscape. Limpopo has been a highlight for me in terms of the incredible wildlife. On the other hand, Cape Town and the scenery it provides is always a great experience for me whether I am travelling there for work or leisure. 

For my fellow Emiratis, Cape Town and Durban are among the favoured destinations, along with parts of Limpopo, which is very popular during the hunting season.

If you were to sell South Africa to Emiratis as a tourism destination what would you say?

I would say that South Africa is a very unique tourism destination. It offers so many options for travellers. South Africa’s extensive coastline – from Durban through Knysna to Cape Town – is ideal for family holidays. Other parts of the country, such as the Kruger National Park, provide an authentic safari or ‘bushveld’ experience. Then there are lesser-known areas to international travellers such as Mpumalanga, which also boast impressive scenery. I know of many young Emiratis who would enjoy the outdoor sporting activities that South Africa offers.

I think another key point to highlight is that South Africa is suitable for all budgets, and has good weather all year around, where the temperatures are not extreme.

Any final thoughts or parting words you would like to share?

Reaching this 25-year milestone in our diplomatic relations with South Africa has given us further impetus to reach new heights. We intend to leverage our strengths to continue to make meaningful contributions to our respective countries through these relations. In doing so, we will continually call upon the legacies bequeathed to us by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the two remarkable leaders of our countries who took steps to initiate relations, the fruits of which we enjoy today. The UAE is a close and committed ally to South Africa and the African continent.

I am truly honoured to represent the country and the people of UAE in South Africa. I speak on behalf of the staff of both our missions in South Africa when I say that we look forward to assisting you at the Embassy in Pretoria and at the UAE Consulate in Cape Town in the near future.

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