AVON, Ohio — United Arab Emirates businessman Ahmed Al Menhali was in the United States last week for treatment of several medical conditions in Cleveland.
Instead, he ended up collapsing outside an Avon, Ohio, hotel, after police officers charged at him with guns raised and handcuffed him.
They were responding to a false report that Al Menhali, dressed head-to-toe in traditional Arabian thobe, pledged allegiance to ISIS in a phone call from the Fairfield Inn and Suites lobby.
It quickly became an international incident.
The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation called for an apology from Avon officials and warned citizens against wearing national dress when traveling to the United States.
Avon’s mayor and police chief apologized to Al Menhali on Saturday in a meeting in the Cleveland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“You should not have been put in that situation,” Avon Police Chief Richard Bosley said.
Marriott Hotels, which owns Fairfield Inn and Suites, did not respond to requests for comment.
Al Menhali said he is grateful for the apology but it’s not enough. He wants those responsible for the 911 call to be held accountable. And, he hopes the police department will use it as a teachable moment in cross-cultural encounters.
“Ahmed greatly appreciates the overture by coming to meet him on a holiday weekend. He appreciates their sincere apology, this is a positive and very important first step,” a translator said on his behalf.
“However, he still has a lot of unanswered questions and concerns [as] to how this could have happened in the first place.”
‘Lack of cultural education’
The Avon Police Department received the 911 call on June 29 at 5:53 p.m.
A woman said she was calling on behalf of her sister, a desk clerk at the Fairfield Inn and Suites. The woman said her sister called her and told her there was a man in the hotel lobby “in full headdress with multiple disposable phones pledging his allegiance to ISIS,” according to a news release.
Meanwhile, another 911 call came in from the desk worker’s father requesting assistance on behalf of her daughter for the same reason. He said she was “terrified” and hiding “in the back.”
Avon Police officers arrived at the hotel at 5:57 p.m. and found Al Menhali at the hotel entrance on a cell phone.
As they approached his first instinct was to follow their orders, Al Menhali told CNN through a translator.
He had no idea what was going on; maybe something was wrong in the hotel, he thought to himself, and they were coming to help him.
As they got closer and he saw their “vicious eyes” he realized he was the target, he said to his translator.
The clerk was right about one thing: Al Menhali had two phones that he was using to find a place to stay, said Julia Shearson, executive director of CAIR Cleveland.
Al Menhali showed up at the hotel in search of lodging. He had been renting an apartment in Lakewood since April, staying in the country on a tourist visa while he underwent treatment, Shearson said.
His landlord asked him to find alternate accommodations during the week of the Republican National Convention so the RNC could use the apartment. He went to the nearby Fairfield and asked the desk clerk for recommendations for extended stay hotels. The manager came out front to help while the desk clerk went to the back office, Shearson said.
He took a seat in the lobby and waited for them to print a list. As he continued to wait he stepped outside the hotel just as police showed up.
“I believe the clerk had little cultural training to where she called her family to make it something outrageous,” Shearson told CNN.
“The only behavior that was unusual was the clerk’s, not Ahmed. It’s the lack of cultural education.”
Officers approached Al Menhali with guns drawn, according the police news release. Body-camera video worn by one of the officers showed at least one of them carrying an assault rifle as they shouted orders at him to get down and drop his phone.
Al Menhali complied, sinking to his knees in a position resembling a prayer pose as officers approached.
While officers handcuffed him and removed his wallet, others made contact with the desk clerk, according to the release.
“The male did not in fact make any statements related to ISIS,” the statement said. “It was evident to the responding officers that there was a clear miscommunication between the desk clerk and her relatives.”
The video shows officers removing Al Menhali’s handcuffs and searching his wallet, spreading business cards and photos on the hood of the police vehicle.
After a few minutes the video shows him collapsing to the ground. A paramedic who had been called to treat the desk worker for a panic attack tends to him, according to the police statement.
Moments later, the video shows paramedics lifting him onto a cot and wheeling him into an ambulance.
He suffered a “light stroke,” and was hospitalized until Saturday, translator Ahmed Ali said.
‘False accusations’ were made’
Shearson commended Avon city officials for not backing down from the situation.
“We commend City of Avon officials for taking an important step toward helping to resolve this matter. Instead of retreating behind a wall of silence, they came forward swiftly to unequivocally exonerate Mr. Al Menhali, which is extremely important in restoring his dignity and reputation,” Shearson said.
“We appreciate the transparency and forthrightness of these officials and hope they will pursue this matter in terms of seeking justice for Mr. Al Menhali through the office of the prosecutor.”
Mayor Bryan K. Jensen said he hoped those involved learned from the encounter.
“There were some false accusations made against you and those are regrettable,” Jensen said.
The department is investigating whether to pursue charges, the news release said.
Beyond that, it’s unclear how they plan to respond to the incident. Al Menhali hopes this incident leads to training in cultural sensitivity for police and hotel staff.
“The apology is a great step to make a better [relationship] between the Muslim community and the police; also to give a better example [for] police when they deal with different cultures,” Al Menhali said through his translator. “People have to be culturally aware and if we don’t get along with each other it is going to be a mess.”
Al Menhali is back in his Lakewood apartment, where he received a warm welcome on Saturday from neighbors, Shearson said.
Despite the incident he still loves America, his interpreter said. He hopes to be a contributing member of the community during the remainder of his stay.
“He will do his best to help this country, American or not.”