Geopolitics

Abraham Accords Unleashed: The Middle East Will Never Be The Same

The peace accords signed between conservative Arab states and Israel are the start of an inevitable opening for the Middle East, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan means a new post-American, post-oil future.

-Editorial-

BOGOTÁ — Days ago, passing through the Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv, I could see prominent signs announcing direct flights between Israel and Casablanca in Morocco, and with Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Manama the capital of Bahrain, and Cairo. These were in addition to the dozen daily flights linking Tel Aviv and Istanbul, which have been operating for some years.

And to think on top of that, we now see the opening of Saudi airspace to flights to Israel, which would have been unthinkable just a few years back.

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Are We Witnessing The Unraveling Of OPEC?

The pandemic has exacerbated tensions within the petroleum cartel, eroded Saudi Arabia's hegemony, and led to shifting internal alliances. An era may be over.

-Analysis-

Everyone is talking about the post-oil era, but in all likelihood, that horizon is still far away. OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is very much still calling the shots in the energy sector and, consequently, in the global economy. Nothing happens in isolation on the international stage.

In April 2020, Saudi Arabia, struggling with worsening economic insecurity, suddenly opted to increase its oil production within the organization. Now, the kingdom's long-time ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is looking to do the same thing, and in the process, is openly opposing other members, including Saudi Arabia.

Up until now, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh held a strong bond, forming an untouchable strategic and political axis. In the midst of the blockade crisis, this partnership seemed all the tighter when Qatar, a sworn enemy of the Persian Gulf, chose to leave OPEC. The loss of Qatari opposition had the effect of reducing existing internal tensions within the organization.

Each member country has its own agenda and economic concerns that typically steer the enactment of new and different production rules for the years to come. In the case of the UAE, the pandemic has been very costly, forcing it, among other things, to postpone the Dubai 2020 World Expo by one year.

Qatar stands to gain from these Gulf state tensions

It is therefore all-the-more urgent for the UAE to increase its oil production both to compensate for losses incurred and to quickly increase its foreign exchange earnings. OPEC's goal of reducing oil production until at least through 2022 is unthinkable.

By the end of 2019, the UAE had at least 100 billion barrels of oil in reserve, placing the country in eighth place globally with nearly 6% of total world reserves. It's limited, however, by 2018 OPEC agreements stipulating that Abu Dhabi produce only 3.17 million barrels per day, even though it has the potential to produce almost 4 million.

In the past the UAE has been discreet, opting to remain in Riyadh's shadow. Those days are over, though, and it has now become a major player in the organization. And, after several months of Abu Dhabi trying to quietly distance itself from its historical ally, the crack is for the first time taking place openly.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) receives Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca via ZUMA Press

Could this shift within OPEC signal the possibility of a violent rift to come between Mohammed bin Salmane — the heir to the Saudi throne — and his Emirati mentor? Perhaps. Either way, what is clear is that Qatar stands to gain from these Gulf state tensions.

The pandemic is largely responsible for the expected overturning of previously long-held alliances. The geopolitical and economic context was already tense, and a year of economic collapse has only exacerbated the situation. In 2020, every member state joined together in accusing Saudi Arabia of unilaterally increasing its production capacity, subsequently causing the price of oil to fall and destabilizing other OPEC countries, namely Russia. The self-interested, lone-wolf style of behavior has not been appreciated.

Thus, the Saudi monopoly is in many areas beginning to crack, and there's no clearer evidence of this than the UAE's public opposition. Saudi Arabia's historic hegemony has been severely undermined.

Still, it is in the interest of many that these tensions dissipate in order to avoid global destabilization. Under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, the United States, an ally of Saudi Arabia, had worked to resolve the crisis. But new President Joe Biden cannot be counted on to keep doing Saudi Arabia's bidding. Since his arrival at the White House in January, the Democrat has stated he wants to assess the relationship between the United States and this ally, and in particular with Mohammed ben Salmane.

Meanwhile, like Qatar, the UAE is also threatening to leave OPEC altogether if its demands are not met. Oil is only one of the things that bind Qatar and the UAE together. Other areas include the terrorist threat in the Middle East, their common opposition to Turkey, with its expansionist aims, and above all the common interest in normalizing relations with Israel. The UAE's threat may soon be realized. If so, the repercussions will be felt all over.

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Oil On Canvas? Art As Seen Through Black Gold

An art exhibition in Dubai depicts an alternative story of the Middle East, using oil as a starting point.

DUBAI — "Oil is magical and insidious," writes Murtaza Vali, curator of Crude*, the inaugural exhibition at Dubai's Jameel Arts Centre. Oil's influence was central in U.S. President Donald Trump's November 20 statement, in which he affirmed his support for Saudi Arabia following Jamal Khashoggi's murder. "America First," reiterates Trump, citing the Kingdom's $450 billion commitment to the U.S. — mostly as oil proceeds — and its status as the world's second largest oil producer. Aside from its brashness, the statement offers little new.

Throughout the 20th century, the unwavering efforts of western powers to secure their oil needs have assumed a guise of political correctness, and at times cultural diplomacy, both constituting a strategy that is explored and heavily critiqued through several works in Crude.

For instance, the public relations departments of Saudi Aramco (the national Saudi petroleum and natural gas company) alongside British Petroleum produced art publications and films to mediate cultural differences and showcase the developing utopias they were building in a region that, still today, holds more than 70% of the world's crude oil reserves. Persian Story was envisioned in 1951 by BP as the first Technicolor film to be shot in Iran for local screenings, British cinemas and international film festivals.

The artists use the corporation's archive to subvert its propagandistic efforts.

The film was to be shot in Abadan, where "the greatest oil refinery in the world" was located, featuring British physicians called from their dinner tables to operate on Persian workers, alongside local tribesmen trained to become oil technicians — all in BP's newly built oil hub. However, political developments that culminated in the rise of Mohammad Mosaddegh as Iran's prime minister and the subsequent nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry challenged the film's completion, with director Ralph Keene declaring it "unfilmable."

Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi, two of the 17 artists exhibiting in Crude, dug into BP's archive to create their mixed media installation Seep (2012–18). The artists use the corporation's archive to subvert its propagandistic efforts. They also link the events to the extensive collection of Western art amassed by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art from nationalized oil revenues, through framed lists of artists whose works it housed, including Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Hopper and Paul Klee. The collection was buried in an underground storage room for 20 years as anti-American sentiments grew in Iran after the Khomeini Revolution in 1979. Taking up one of the five galleries dedicated to Crude, Seep makes a subtle nod to the Gulf states' recent use of artistic and cultural production as tools for soft diplomacy.

Through UNstabile-Mobile (2006), Venezuelan artist Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck mixes abstract art with documents. The centerpiece of this work is a delicate black sculpture of dangling amorphous sheets pinned to a star. It is inspired by the hanging mobiles of Alexander Calder; but its shadows, cast upon a white base, map Iraq's oil fields. An accompanying handout presents excerpts from the censored 2001 Energy Task Force documents, drafted by then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in collaboration with key figures in the energy industry, highlighting maps of Iraq's oil fields, pipelines and refineries, as well as concessions made under Saddam Hussein. A framed 2006 issue of the New Yorker magazine features a piece by journalist Seymour M. Hersh on the motives behind the George W. Bush's antagonization of Iran in the early 2000s.

While Iran remained isolated, oil producing countries in the region enjoyed a protectorate status and had leverage vis-a-vis the U.S. and western Europe. An example of this dynamic is the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S. deployed 540,000 military personnel as part of Operation Desert Field. Along with a coalition including NATO, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, it successfully pushed Iraqi forces led by Saddam Hussein out of neighboring Kuwait. As the Iraqi troops withdrew, however, they set some 680 oil fields ablaze. German filmmaker Werner Herzog chronicles that moment in his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness, composed of aerial footage of the burning fields. Kuwaiti artist Monira al-Qadiri, however, provides a different aesthetic and emotional experience in Behind the Sun (2013), exhibited in Crude. Combining shaky documentary footage of the fires shot on a road trip by journalist Adel al-Yousifi, with a recording of Sufi poetry from Kuwaiti television that features statements praising God like "Everyone enjoys the blessing," the 10-minute video shows smokey clouds morphing into fantastical, blooming red flower-like shapes. In its eerie and cataclysmic beauty, it is reminiscent of Crossroads, about the U.S."s nuclear weapon experiments in Bikini Atoll.

Murtaza Vali, a curator, writer and art historian based between Sharjah and New York, was interested in exploring unconventional relationships to colonialism, and delving into the impact of discovering oil, as well as the temporal optimism associated with these discoveries and their effect on cultural production, urban development and the material lifestyle of local communities. Through a selection of 41 pieces, three commissions and two productions, he seeks to tell a crude, alternative history of modernity in the Middle East, using oil as a "screen" to distract from stereotypical representations.

In a 15-minute video presented across four screens, Wael Shawky's Asphalt Quarter (2003) shows 60 Bedouin children paving an asphalt runway in the desert as we listen to a woman reading technical instructions in English, occasionally interrupted by Figiri singing. Asphalt Quarter is an interpretation of the first chapter in Abdul Rahman Munif's 1984 novel Cities of Salt, in which UK petroleum companies arrive at a fishermen's village and ask members of the local community to build an airplane platformg. The airplane runway as a prop of modernity finds resonance across the region, from Saudi Arabia, where Shawky grew up, to Dubai and Egypt's Western Desert, where he shot his film, playing on the spontaneity of non-actors.

These stories are contrary to the typical Orientalist images promoted by oil companies.

Fleshing out the region's inhabitants, particularly those working in the oil sector, is Saudi artist Manal al-Dowayan in If I Forget You, Don't Forget Me (2012). The highlight of this installation is an intimate video portrait of Saud al-Ashgar, retired senior vice president of international operations at Aramco. Al-Ashgar, meaning The Blond in Arabic, received the nickname for his fair skin and hair. After much traveling in extreme poverty with his family, he studied chemical engineering at the University of Texas and worked at Aramco for 33 years. The sexagenarian tells us us how he learned to read and write at religious schools, and that the green lawns of Texas were his "heaven". One of several portraits filmed by al-Dowayan, the video raises curiosity and empathy towards a little known class that contributed to the region's transformation in the 20th century.

These stories are contrary to the typical Orientalist images promoted by oil companies, which Raja'a Khalid highlights in her series on the leisure activities of Aramco's expatriate staff. Surfing the archives of Aramco World and Fortune Magazine, Khalid reproduced photographs of U.S. executives playing golf in blazing heat and inhospitable sand. We see a topless man in white shorts, steadily positioning his club to make a swing against fire roaring from an oil well, and several black and white photographs of men marking holes with flagsticks for fellow golfers as Bedouins watch in bewilderment.

Golf courses continue to mushroom across the Middle East — only today they are lush green, despite the arid climate and water distress. This phenomenon seems to be coupled with another byproduct of the early oil culture: exclusive gated communities that were originally modeled on company towns. Hajra Waheed tackles this alien urban infrastructure in Aerial Studies 1–8 (2013). Having grown up at the Dhahran compound, Saudi Aramco's administrative headquarters, the artist was interested in highlighting the segregating design of these European upper class enclaves. She prints parts of the walled compound's map — obtained from the company archive — on unexposed Polaroid film, as if the image is gradually developing into view. The work provides a backstory for the development of gated communities for the financially able across the region, while the majority of local and migrant populations are left with dilapidating infrastructure in the older, unrestricted towns.

The old cities weren't always in such a dire state, however, as shown in Latif al-Ani's photographs of Baghdad. Having worked for BP's public relations department in the mid 1950s, then for Iraq's Ministry of Culture and Guidance in the 1960s, al-Ani was repeatedly commissioned to document the developments in urban infrastructure and lifestyle brought about by oil revenues. We see women working in an automated date-packing factory in Basra; a new housing project in Yarmouk, south of Baghdad, shot from above; Baghdad's city center with Jawad Salim's iconic Freedom Monument. The formal composition of these black and white photographs of petrol-fueled developments — shot using a medium format Rolleiflex, occasionally from an airplane — captivated the readers of company publications in the past, just as they continue to beguile us today.

The color and texture of oil is present throughout the different showrooms of Crude. Introductions to each of the show's six sections are printed in hazy fonts on transparent plastic sheets, while wall texts are typed in dark, reddish brown on bluish purple reflective paper. But it is Lydia Ourahmane's installation, Land of the Sun (2014), that truly brings the physicality of oil to our senses. As soon as we enter the last gallery, we smell oil and see a blossoming lemon tree planted in a tire and feeding on used engine oil. The image is striking and initially counterintuitive, as we are constantly reminded of the environmental hazards of oil spills.

The works on display, of which many are made from plastic and petrochemical by-products, might last longer than existing oil reserves worldwide. They constitute a body of work that narrates rarely told stories of the region's murky oil industry.

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What You Hear Is What You Get: Sound As Subversive Art

Beirut-based contemporary artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan uses sounds to shine a light, so to speak, on some of the darkest places on earth.

DUBAI — Crossing a thin, fabric threshold into a pitch black room at Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah resort, visitors come face-to-face with Walled Unwalled, the latest video work by artist and sound investigator Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Inside the room — which feels at once isolating and womb-like — is an image of the artist himself, projected on a glass wall and performing a series of monologues that revolve around legal cases in which evidence seeped, quite literally, through walls — mostly in the form of sound.

Abu Hamdan begins by telling the story of Danny Lee Kyllo, a man who grew "the best weed in Oregon" until the police used a military-grade thermal camera to detect the heat radiating from the walls of his garage. The grower had used high-intensity heat lamps to help his marijuana plants photosynthesize.

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Sources
Dunja Ramadan

A Woman's Perspective On Divorce In The Arab World

More and more people in Muslim-majority countries are opting out of their marriages. And often it's the woman who decides to end things.

ABU DHABI — Farah wears her long black hair down and uncovered. Her nails are painted red. And she loves base jumping. She's also a divorcee — as of nine years ago. Her daughter was only 11 months old at the time. Farah herself was just 19. The marriage had lasted two years.

Farah exudes self-confidence and says she's open for a new relationship. She's the opposite of the clichéd image many still have of an Arab woman, of someone forced into marriage, oppressed and wearing a full hijab. Certainly there are still arranged marriages (not to be confused with forced marriages) in the Arab world. But far more often than in the past — and far more quickly — unhappy spouses in this part of the world now separate and divorce.

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Sources
Malik Al ash-Shaykh

Hip Hop Wannabes, All The Way In Abu Dhabi

-Essay-

ABU DHABI — For many of us, hip hop has always been more than just another music genre, a passing trend or temporary lifestyle. It's a cultural movement with deep roots that highlight socio-economic disadvantages, an accreditation to the advancement of civil rights progress, and, in sociological terms, an ongoing challenge to the status quo.

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food / travel
Claude Soula

Another Dubai Superlative: Inside The New No. 1 International Airport

Located in the middle of the desert, DXB airport now surpasses London's Heathrow in international travelers. Part museum, part high-end shopping gallery, it's a global wonder.

DUBAI — It is only 6 a.m. in Dubai, but a very dense crowd has already gathered at the giant shopping center like it's the first day of sales. It seems the entire world is here under the oval vault made of glass and concrete: Asians, Africans, Europeans and Emiratis, of all ages and social classes, looking for the perfect duty-free deal at Dubai International Airport (DBX).

There simply aren't enough superlatives to describe the place: more space, more terminals, more shops, and now more international travelers than any other airport on the planet.

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Smarter Cities

Masdar City, Green Desert Paradise Or Disappointing Mirage?

The Solar Impulse flight aims to show that clean technologies exist. Masdar City, the plane's departure site near Abu Dhabi, was set to be the city of the future. What's left of this dream?

MASDAR CITY — They appear like a mirage in the Gulf desert. A few yellow and silver futuristic buildings, "embroidered" ocher facades, a triangular metal lighthouse, solar panels for as far as the eye can see. Many people come to this modern oasis 30 kilometers from Abu Dhabi like they would go to Disneyland — with a map of the "attractions" in hand.

It's also from this capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that the Solar Impulse plane departed March 9 for its flight around the world. Its designers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg were invited there by the emirs and sponsored by Masdar, the company that manages the eponymous city.

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blog

Assault On Boko Haram, Nemtsov Suspects, Solar Plane

ISIS CALIPHATE CRUMBLING
As Iraqi armed forces close in on the ISIS-held Tikrit, The Washington Post reports that the terrorist group that holds vast parts of Iraq and Syria appears to be “starting to fray from within.” The newspaper cites dissent, defections, battlefield defeats and growing tensions between foreign and local fighters as signs that the group’s “carefully cultivated image” is collapsing.

EXTRA! ASSAULT ON BOKO HARAM
Niger and Chad launched a major joint ground and air offensive against Boko Haram in Nigeria Sunday, one day after the militants formally pledged allegiance to ISIS and killed at least 50 in Maiduguri. The joint military operation represents a new regional push to end the terrorist group's six-year insurgency. Read more on our 4 Corners blog here.

21,748 MILES
Photo above: An Jiang/Xinhua/ZUMA
The Solar Impulse 2 departed from Abu Dhabi this morning for what could be a transportation breakthrough, the first round-the-world trip by a solar-powered aircraft. The plane, which operates on 17,000 solar cells and four 17.5-horsepower electric motors, will need an estimated four to five months to complete its journey.

NEMTSOV MURDER SUSPECTS CHARGED
A Russian court has charged two Chechens in connection with the Feb. 27 killing of political opponent Boris Nemtsov in what investigators said was a contract killing, RT reports. According to the judge, one of the men, Zaur Dadaev, confessed his involvement. Three others were arrested and jailed pending further investigation, but more arrests could be made in the next few days. The New York Times notes that the roles of the suspects or their motive for killing Nemtsov is still very unclear. There’s been speculation that there could be an Islamist link, but according to Reuters, colleagues of Nemtsov said this theory was “nonsensical” and continue to point the finger at the Kremlin.

VERBATIM
“Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in reaction to a United Nations report on torture that found the country was violating the rights of asylum seekers. Australia notoriously detains asylum seekers who arrive by boat, including children, in offshore camps rife with violence. Read more from The Sydney Morning Herald.

’O LUNA MIA
We all share the same sky, but each of us gazes up from a unique place on earth. Get Simon’s latest horoscope from The Eternal City.

NETANYAHU AND A PALESTINIAN STATE
With Israel’s general election just a week away, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be sending mixed signals about whether he supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, The Times of Israel reports. He was quoted as saying that “in the Mideast today, any evacuated territory will be overtaken by radical Islam and terror groups backed by Iran. Therefore, there will be no withdrawals and no concessions. It’s just not relevant.” But Netanyahu’s spokesman later denied that he had said such a thing and that he was still standing by a famous 2009 speech in which he spoke in favor of a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Haaretz suggests that the “Arab list” could become the main opposition party.

WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO
As Igor Abakumov writes for Kommersant, Russian demand for do-it-yourself culinary supplies such as canning jars has been booming since the West imposed sanctions on the country and the currency has tanked. “We're buying for more or less the same reasons,” Abakumov writes. “Some people raise cows and are selling milk; others are making goose, duck and chicken meat conserves. My neighbor to the left has a huge apiary, my neighbor to the right sells quail eggs. Both of them are city people I've known for more than 30 years. But it was just in the past two years that they've started these businesses.”
Read the full article, Geopolitics, The Sinking Ruble And A Boom In Home Farming.

MY GRAND-PÈRE’S WORLD


NO ANSWERS IN MH370 REPORT
It’s still unclear what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared a year ago yesterday, after a 584-page report failed to provide any answers, The Guardian writes. The report did reveal, though, that the battery powering the aircraft’s black box had expired more than a year before the plane went missing, meaning the locator beacon could not have been working. Though lawyers said this could be crucial in determining compensation for the victims’ families, the company said this made no difference in searches for the plane.

ON THIS DAY
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On March 9, 1959, Barbie made her debut in New York. Time for your 57-second shot of history.

Sources
Laurent Carpentier

Louvre Abu Dhabi, A French Museum Rising In The Desert

ABU DHABI — The indefatigable Jean Nouvel, 69, can be proud of his project. For that matter, he is. The star French architect shakes hands, hugs, takes in all the praise with a stoic pride.

The construction site is massive in scale. In the sand, under the searing sun, 5,000 people are hard at work to ensure that in a year’s time, in December 2015, the building — the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the new museum built under the aegis of the world renowned French museum — is ready to house acclaimed art and open its doors to visitors.

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blog

Monkeys And Vodka: Clubbing in Dubai

A chic nightclub in the glittering, moneyed Gulf city of Dubai, has found itself in very hot water for allowing a monkey onto its premises. The concern? Animal abuse.

Photos showed the monkey attached to a leash and wearing a t-shirt. One image showed the monkey being force-fed vodka.

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food / travel
Helge Sobik

Fishermen, Bullfights And The Emirates' Economic Boom

FUJAIRAH — Once they’ve finished, the fishermen of Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates, drag their boats up onto the beach, sit in the shade to mend their nets, and begin to chat: about Allah, about the world, about soccer and bullfights.

But talk also turns to how the pace of life has sped up so much recently, and how nice it would be to turn back the clock.

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blog
Sonja Zekri

Western Culture In Abu Dhabi Breeds Exploited Workers

-Commentary-

For years, major sporting events have been hosted in the superbly wealthy Gulf States. Now, renowned Western cultural institutions are following suit. But these high-minded museums and cultural organizations are encountering a familiar problem.

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food / travel
Jochen Temsch

Welcome To Dubai's Youth Hostel, An Oasis In The Urban Jungle Of Development

DUBAI - Beer? Of course not! Sayed Kamal looks at his guests with astonishment. Alcohol is only served in the big hotels. This is a youth hostel!

It is in fact the only youth hostel in Dubai. "But I can offer you something similar," says blue-shirted, tie-wearing Kamal as he emerges from behind the counter where he checks visitors in. He opens a huge fridge, which together with a laminated plastic bar top and a stylistic mix of wooden chairs, leather armchairs and computer terminals constitutes the hostel’s lounge area.

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Economy
Tamara Muñoz

How Persian Gulf Airlines Surged To Top Class Of Travel Industry Pack

SANTIAGO - Last year in London, engineers from Airbus presented their vision for the future: An airplane featuring a transparent roof that allows passengers to see the stars, with an air system that pumps antioxidants into the cabin air.

If this audacious concept becomes reality in 2050 and the airline market remains more or less the same, then it is probable that the Persian Gulf airlines will be the first to operate these antioxidant-pumped planes.

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