9/11 Remembered. A view from Riyadh.


9/11 Remembered – the day that changed the world.

William Sutherland was working as an accountant for a company based in Saudi Arabia between 1999 and 2003. He and his family were living with other Ex-pats in Riyadh when the World Trade Center was hit. He describes what happened when the twin towers were attacked:

The Attack on the world trade center

The attack on the World Trade center changed perceptions of East and West and forced America to question its role in the world


We lived a very comfortable life as Ex-pats and enjoyed the multi-cultural feel of the community we shared in Riyadh. My two young daughters were taught at the British School and my wife was a teacher there. Although nominally British, the school catered for many different nationalities and cultures. I was working in my office on September 11th when, at around 5pm local time, one of my colleagues called me through to his office to show me the pictures on the internet of the attack on the twin towers in New York. Obviously it was really shocking and we were both numbed by the images. We didn’t know what to say to each other. It just didn’t seem real. I hurried home and told my wife to turn on the television. We both sat silently in disbelief as the drama unfolded. My daughters were playing outside, completely oblivious to it all. I couldn’t help noticing the  strange contrast between their innocent play in the garden and the horror I was witnessing inside on the TV. During that evening, I spoke to many of my friends in Riyadh on the phone. Everyone was in a state of shock. The Americans, understandably, were devastated and really worried for their personal  safety. Some had decided that Saudi was too dangerous for them and wanted to leave as quickly as possible. I cannot really remember much about the following day in the office. Everyone was still in shock, irrespective of their nationality. I do remember however that some of my staff (Indian and Pakistani Muslims) were concerned that our office block – within Faisaliah tower – could be a target as it was the tallest building in the city at that time. There was very little information about the perpetrators at this point and everyone in Saudi was afraid that they could also be targeted by the terrorists

Faisaliah Tower, Riyadh

William Sutherland with his daughters, Rachel and Hannah in the restaurant of the Faisaliah Tower, Riyadh - built by the Bin Laden Building Group


In my time in Saudi Arabia I had never felt under any threat – quite the contrary. As a family we were always welcomed and treated well wherever we went. We often visited the local markets and took our children to play parks and fairgrounds where they could mix with local children and their families. Thursday and Friday is the weekend in Saudi Arabia and this gave us a chance to take stock of the situation. My wife and I sat down to determine our future. Although I am British, I have family in the USA and could easily understand how my American colleagues felt. We had two options – stay here in Riyadh or go back to Scotland. What ever we decided, there were going to be major implications. There was the obvious risk that things could escalate in Riyadh and we could find ourselves in danger either from the Saudi people, or from terrorists. On the other hand, whilst we might be safer back home, (the girls would soon settle back into their old school) my wife and I didn’t have a job to go to. As further details came through about the attack on the targets in the USA, we thought long and hard about our future. When we discovered that 19 of the 20 suicide bombers were Saudi nationals (including their leader!) it seemed foolish to consider staying. We decided that if we were going to stay, we wanted to live our lives as before and not hide away in our compound. Whilst the news was bad, we were uncertain how the people of Saudi really felt. So with that in mind we went to the supermarket for our weekly shop after the main prayers on the Friday. As a family we entered the supermarket and within seconds a Saudi man brought his 2 sons over to introduce themselves. They didn’t speak much English but the gestures were clear: despite differences in nationality, religious beliefs or skin colour , we all share the same planet and want to live our lives in peace. Later on that same day I went to a cash machine and as I walked towards the bank two Saudi men passed us. One of them gave my younger daughter a friendly pat on the head and smiled – another gesture to reinforce that the vast majority of Saudi people disowned the actions of these few countrymen. One person actually apologised to me for September 11, thinking I was American (all Westerners look the same!) as if it was his fault! We found these gestures very uplifting and we knew that our decision would be to stay on in Riyadh. We are pleased that we made that decision because we felt that it brought us closer together as a family and closer to the community in which we lived and worked. However, we noticed that a lot of the Ex-pat community ‘kept their heads down’- and not just the Americans. I cannot say what percentage of Americans left the Kingdom, but we certainly lost a few immediately afterwards. You must remember that there is no free press Saudi Arabia and so it was difficult to gauge public opinion in general. I had to rely on my own experiences. There certainly was a feeling from some Saudis that ‘the bully had been given a bloody-nose’. In a sense, the genie was out of the bottle and there was much more honest discussion about the situation that led up to 9/11 and the effect it might have on world order. After the invasion of Afghanistan, and the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, there was more concern from the Saudi people. They wondered who the Americans might target next. Saudi Arabia had been allies in the first Gulf War, helping to defend other countries in the middle east and liberate Kuwait, whereas this time it was felt that this was an act of aggression against Afghanistan based largely on prejudice. It was felt that, on that basis, if you invade one country in the region then you could easily invade another.

U.S. Soldiers and Saudi soldiers

Whilst the Governments are still close, ordinary Americans and Saudis are less sure of each other.

There was a sense within Riyadh that change was due, but the Saudis wanted to control that change and move at their own pace. Given what has happened in North Africa and parts of the Middle East recently, I believe there will be a greater demand for democratic change in the region. I hope and pray that when that change comes it will be done peacefully and with dignity. We left Saudi Arabia in Spring 2003. I still have many good memories of living there. It was a great experience for us all  and it has had a very positive influence on my family and how we view the world.


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