x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Discrimination against Arabs post 9/11 eases

Some Emiratis flew back to the UAE for several months to avoid potential trouble after the attacks

ABU DHABI // Ahmed Al Sadi decided not to return to the US after finishing college there in 2004.

Now 30 and working as an engineer back home in Abu Dhabi, he is like the three quarters (73 per cent) of Emiratis surveyed for Al Aan TV and The National who feel Muslims in the West have been treated poorly.

Emirati friends of Mr Sadi who have gone back to visit the US have said the occasional discrimination they used to face has eased.

But for Mr Sadi, the heightened suspicion after 9/11 was enough.

Soon after the attacks, he and other Emirati classmates flew back to the UAE for several months, to avoid potential trouble and assuage their families.

When he returned the next spring, he was confronted by stiff new border controls.

He waited 10 hours at the airport while an officer quizzed and re-quizzed him and called his school to verify his story.

For the next two years, he decided not to leave the country and risk another long stay at the airport - or possibly not be allowed back, as he said happened with several Emirati friends.

During that time, he faced occasional discrimination, such as the odd shout of "terrorist".

He felt constant pressure to prove he was not, by conforming to American lifestyles or explaining anything unfamiliar like praying.

"You feel obligated to explain to everybody that it doesn't mean, if I'm praying, that I'm going to bomb the world," he said. "You're guilty until proven innocent."

His classmate at the time and now work colleague, Omair Al Seiari, 31, also faced lengthy airport interviews and sporadic harassment from strangers.

But both have lessened over the years.

People warmed to him as they got to know him - even immigration officials whom he saw regularly. "It really isn't nearly as bad as it used to be," he said.

While strangers might harbour suspicions, many showed kindness, both men said. Students treated their Arabs colleagues with respect and mostly just asked how they felt about 9/11 or Al Qaeda.

The morning of the attacks, a professor called them into his office and gave them his home number.

"Call me any time, day and night," he told them. "Anybody bothers or hassles you, anything, just call me. I'll deal with it." Another morning, soon after the US invaded Iraq, Mr Al Seiari and an Arab friend sat at a restaurant eating breakfast.

An American approached them and asked where they were from.

When they said the Middle East, "the guy literally fell off the table, broke into tears and said he was, 'sorry for what my government is doing to Iraq'," Mr Al Seiari recalled.

That, he said, was one of his strongest post-9/11 memories.

chuang@thenational.ae