x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The ones who did not run in the wake of September 11

Americans who lived in the UAE during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks say their fears at the time were eased after promises that they would be safe were kept.

Raymond Tennant was among Americans who stayed in the UAE as others packed their bags after Al Qaeda operatives - including two UAE hijackers - attacked America on September 11, 2001.
Raymond Tennant was among Americans who stayed in the UAE as others packed their bags after Al Qaeda operatives - including two UAE hijackers - attacked America on September 11, 2001.

As other Americans packed their bags to leave the UAE after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Raymond Tennant debated what to do.

He and his fellow university professors had arrived just one month before 9/11, and were under pressure from family members in the US to leave. Their employer was ready to let them cancel their work contracts, but promised they would be safe if they remained.

Like most of his colleagues, Dr Tennant decided to stay. As weeks passed, the fears eased.

Ten years later, he says he has faced none of the repercussions the Americans had feared as newcomers - except one slightly tense conversation with an Iraqi who was upset about US actions in his home country.

"There's never been anything negative to me, and people have always been reassuring - particularly around 9/11 and 2001," said Dr Tennant, now the provost at Al Hosn University.

"We maybe were a little bit afraid ... we just didn't know," he said. "But all the nationals we talked to all seemed to be very reassuring."

Still, he said, "Our families back home in the US had the most difficult time because they had no idea."

Other Americans who lived in the UAE - the birthplace of two of the 19 hijackers - at the time of the decade-defining attacks shared Dr Tennant's sentiments.

They felt scared but took assurance from Emirati friends and officials who said they had nothing to fear.

Aida Laubach, who has lived in the UAE for 22 years, found comfort in knowing that the UAE took security seriously. But as an American citizen, with a young son attending an American-curriculum school, she feared they might be vulnerable anyway.

That the 9/11 hijackers had breached US security added to her concerns. Footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the twin towers collapsing disturbed her so much she screamed when she saw it on television.

"We felt comfortable in the UAE, but we just prayed, because nothing is fail-proof," she said. "You can have individual fanatics who might have something against ... maybe not big productions, not big targets, but maybe against individuals."

Ms Laubach, who grew up in Lebanon throughout its gruesome 15-year civil war before gaining US citizenship, reverted to her wartime safety precautions. She varied the routes she drove and watched for people acting strangely.

"I found myself going back to that mode. I will scan everything ahead of me, can I go here, is that a suspicious person ... today I go this way, tomorrow I go that way," she said. "I was on heightened alert."

A few American companies operating in Dubai at the time pulled their employees out, but only briefly, said TB McClelland Jr, a management consultant who has lived in the emirate for 15 years. He headed the American Business Council when the attacks happened.

The night after the attacks, he cut short a business trip in Doha to return to Dubai. The next day, he met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, currently the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who was then the emirate's Crown Prince.

The Government was eager to demonstrate its support for Americans, Mr McClelland recalled. He suggested Dubai could provide land that Americans had been seeking to build baseball fields, since the image of American children playing their national pastime would show that the emirate was safe.

"There was no hesitation," Mr McClelland recalled. "Sheikh Mohammed turned to the head of the Dubai Municipality and said, 'I want land today.' And they designated land."

Mr McClelland said the Emiratis around him sympathised with the Americans, and condemned the attackers.

"Everybody was universally against Al Qaeda," he said. "They were very supportive of the US and felt it was as much of a tragedy as we did."

Even as the US began its controversial war in Iraq, using 9/11 as justification, Americans faced no repercussions, he said.

Loads of American contractors set up shop in Dubai as a hub to support the US military efforts, which boosted the emirate's economy.

"Because of the volume of business that was created overnight by operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, American companies were looking for local sponsors," Mr McClelland said. "It was more business for Dubai, so they opened the doors."

chuang@thenational.ae