Rally of the Beards

I have never seen so many beards in a single place.

This afternoon, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and ultraconservative Islamist Salafists staged a mass demonstration in Tahrir Square following Friday prayers. The target of their wrath: former Mubarak spymaster–and briefly vice president–Omar Suleiman, who declared his presidential candidacy for Egypt’s upcoming election last Sunday at the eleventh hour–one day after pledging not to run.

Suleiman’s candidacy has understably been interpreted as a slap in the face to the revolution, which unequivocally rejected Mubarak’s last ditch attempt to salvage the ancien regime by annointing Suleiman his heir apparent last January. Ultimately it was Suleiman who, in a 30-second television appearance on Feb. 11, announced Mubarak’s resignation and the transfer of power to the military, before vanishing from public view for an entire year.

Despite being implicated in some of the worst abuses of the Mubarak police state as head of the feared intelligence service, the mukhabarat, Suleiman went untouched in the post-revolution purge of Mubarak’s inner circle. (There’s a nice overview of his well-documented record of torture here.) So while his old boss awaits a verdict in his murder trial in June, Suleiman  now stands a shot–how real, I’ll get to in a second–at assuming the office he was resoundingly denied by popular will last year.

In fact, not only has Suleiman escaped legal action over his past crimes, he seems to have emerged from the revolution and its  aftermath entirely unscathed. As David Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times today, Suleiman maintains an office in Egypt’s intelligence headquarters and is protected by military security. His chief of staff in the intelligence service now runs his presidential campaign. And in one of the more bizarre stories to emerge from an election season already jam-packed with absurdity, Kirkpatrick tells of seeing this chief of staff being sent a slice of cake from a senior judge on Egypt’s administrative court seated at a nearby table in a restaurant outside the intelligence headquarters. Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, claim to be staying neutral in the presidential race, but it hardly requires a leap of faith to think that they might just be pulling some strings for their former (and perhaps current) colleague.

Hence the anger on display in the square today. I arrived via the Qasr Al-Ainy entrance at around 12:30 (dutifully manned by two solid rows of Muslim Brotherhood “security guards”), right in the middle of Friday prayers. The square was already almost full by this point.The sheik delivering the sermon on the giant stage at the east end railed against Suleiman. Giant banners with Suleiman’s image defaced with black Stars of David, meanwhile, were festooned throughout the square. Indeed, if there was one message for the casual visitor, it was that: Suleiman is an Israeli stooge. A banner I saw later on my way out of the square depicted Suleiman as a devil with two horns–one wrapped in an Israeli flag, the other in an American flag. So, an Israeli and an American stooge. You can’t get much more damning than that.

The crowd in the square was almost entirely Islamist. The liberal revolutionary contingent that typically occupies the center patch of dirt seemed to have abandoned camp for the day. Many wore tags around their neck bearing a picture of either Khairat El-Shater, the former Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide, or Abu Ismail, the mercurial Salafist lawyer/preacher, whose candidacy was resurrected Wednesday by a court finding that his mother was not a US citizen (having a parent with foreign citizenship automatically disqualifies a candidate).

Even so, the demonstration had a decidedly revolutionary feel. Perhaps there were a few more chants of “Allahu Akbar” than your standard Tahir fare, but the organizers cloaked themselves repeatedly in the language of the revolution. As soon as prayers wrapped up, the familiar cry of “Down, down with military rule!” went up, followed by the full spectrum of revolutionary cheers. Although a majority of Egyptian voters polled have expressed a preference for an Islamist candidate, the mantle of the revolution still carries considerable weight, and the Islamists are no doubt keen to grab it.

Back to Suleiman. I’ve been quite skeptical ever since his name surfaced as a possible candidate that he would have much of a shot. Between the Islamists, who despise him for presiding over decades of repression of their leaders and what they view as kowtowing to Israel and the West, and the liberals, who despise him for similar reasons, he doesn’t look to have much of a base of support beyond that so-called “party of the coach”–the unknown portion of the electorate tired of the upheaval, terrified of the Islamists, and in search of a strongman to restore some order to the country.

I question how significant a constituency this really is, and how much of it would throw its weight behind a figure so indelibly linked to the previous regime when there are other plausible establishment, “feloul” (remnants) candidates like former Foreign Secretary Amr Moussa and former Prime Minster Ahmed Shafiq. After this morning’s cab ride, though, I can attest that fervent Suleiman supporters do exist. My driver, maybe in his mid- to late-30s, pointed ominously out the window at groups of men boarding buses headed to Tahrir, gesturing at their beards and repeating, “No good!”

He told me he supported Suleiman. Suleiman would restore order and put the Islamists in their place. I asked him what he thought about Mubarak. “Mubarak very bad!” he said. So Mubarak bad, but his chief henchman good? I was struggling to follow the logic. Mubarak was corrupt, but not Suleiman, he elaborated. I tried to ask how he knew this, but an answer wasn’t forthcoming.

According to the most recent polling (which, for many reasons, should be taken with a heavy dose of salt), Amr Moussa leads the pack with over 30%; Abu Ismail trails close behind in second; former Brotherhood leader but ostensible liberal Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh sits in third with 8.5%; Suleiman claims about 8%; the Brotherhood’s Shater is way back with 1.7%. Clearly, the presidential election is going to be a whole different ballgame than the parliamentary elections, when the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists swept to victory, largely due to name recognition and extensive political and social networks. Those advantages won’t count for nearly as much in a presidential election where, for example, the Brotherhood’s Shater is up against the equally, if not better, known secularist Amr Moussa.

But as the demonstration rolled on through the blazing mid-afternoon sun, and thousands more streamed into Tahrir from across the river, it served up a reminder that no one can match the Islamists when it comes to mobilizing their people. Although the rally was ostensibly aimed at Suleiman (Moussa and Shafiq too), its message was perhaps most relevant to the other non-Islamist candidates (and I’m including Aboul-Fotouh among them; in three hours in the square, I didn’t find a single supporter of his) in the race, who, seeing the Islamists’ show of strength and the backlash against it, might be tempted to take a page out of Suleiman’s book and position themselves as the antidote to the scary Islamists.

It’s not a winning strategy. Because if you’re a voter just looking for an antidote to scary Islamists, you might as well get your money’s worth with Suleiman. The others have to offer something more. God knows, there’s no shortage of things here to talk about.

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Revitalization of Downtown Cairo

From the April issue of Business Today Egypt.
Downtown hosts some of Cairo’s most beautiful architecture, but the buildings have been largely neglected.
Courtesy Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments

Over the last half-century, Downtown Cairo, the “Paris along the Nile” of Khedive Ismail’s imagination, has seen its star wane dramatically. The effects of chronic underinvestment and archaic rent control laws have blighted its elegant belle époque architecture. The flight of the rich to satellite cities and the poor to the ashwai’yat or informal settlements, has hollowed out its residential core. Recent political turbulence has further battered the urban landscape. The one-time cultural capital of the Arab World is now a shadow of its former self.

Karim Shafei, the managing director and public face of Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments, has been imagining Downtown’s renaissance for some time now. The self-professed Downtown romantic set out in 2008 to purchase one — perhaps a few — properties in the area to hold in perpetuity. But his initial foray into the real estate market, he says, alerted him to a far greater business opportunity.

“When I went down looking for opportunities to buy buildings I was offered by real estate agents whom I commissioned to find a building for me maybe 40 or 50 buildings that were available for sale. So it basically said that everyone who owns a building in Downtown wants to get rid of it.”

That triggered a partnership in 2008 with Aladdin Saba, the cofounder of Beltone Financial, and loftier ambitions. “We found maybe, instead of buying one building and waiting for 50 years, maybe if we can put together a fund to acquire the buildings, refurbish them, redo the public space, the infrastructure in Downtown or parts of Downtown, we could possibly change what Downtown looks like in a much shorter period,” Shafei adds.

Since then, Al-Ismaelia has acquired 20 buildings Downtown and secured the financial backing of some of the Middle East’s wealthiest investors, among them Samih Sawiris, the Egyptian real estate tycoon behind Orascom Hotels and Development’s El Gouna resort on the Red Sea and 23rd richest man in Africa with an estimated net worth of $560 million (LE 3.38 billion). The group is currently capitalized at LE 375 million.

Beyond its obvious profit motives, Al-Ismaelia has laid out a grand vision for Downtown. Its website declares its goal as “to revive Downtown Cairo as a destination for all Egyptians to live, work, shop and socialize.” Shafei elaborates, comparing the Cairo he envisions to Rome, Istanbul or Paris. “Basically Downtown city centers around the world are a melting pot,” he says. “They’re a meeting point for the different social economic segments of the city. It’s also a destination for businesses, for tourism, for entertainment and so forth […] That’s where we see Downtown heading. It’s becoming retail and entertainment for Egyptians across the board, offering Egyptian-like experiences.”

Not everyone is enthralled by the plan. From its inception, Al-Ismaelia has confronted a mixture of skepticism and outright opposition. Just mention the group’s name Downtown, and you’ll quickly stumble upon no shortage of speculation and rumors — whispers of corruption and money laundering and all sorts of financial malfeasance. Early on, some of its detractors even accused Al-Ismaelia of being a Zionist plot to install Jewish settlements in Cairo.

Courtesy Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments (2)

Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments’ gentrification of Downtown may displace its poorer inhabitants.

The most outrageous conspiracy theories aside, Al-Ismaelia and its designs remain a mystery to most Cairenes. Aly Gabr, an associate professor of architectural engineering at Cairo University, attributes the rampant rumors to what he calls a troubling lack of transparency on the group’s part. Even scholars like himself have found themselves in the dark as to Al-Ismaelia’s plans. “It’s all word of mouth and rumor,” he says. “Everybody was hearing a story, and then we were comparing stories with one another …. We were very, very concerned. We wanted to know what was happening. Did they have anything clear in their mind? To this moment, we don’t even know who Ismaelia group is beyond a list of people.”

The most serious questions concern what exactly Al-Ismaelia has in mind when it speaks of “reviving” Downtown. Four years after its founding, the company has not begun any of the planned refurbishments, citing delays brought on by the revolution and global economic crisis.

Of course, urban revitalization efforts are almost by nature controversial. For all its problems, Downtown Cairo remains a cherished space. As Walter Armbrust, a lecturer in Oxford’s Oriental Studies department explains, Downtown is the one neighborhood in the city where “lots of different people from different social classes can come and more or less rub elbows.”

One commonly-voiced fear is that Al-Ismaelia will fundamentally alter the fabric of Downtown Cairo, displacing longtime residents and shopkeepers to appeal to higher-paying tenants. The cautionary tale most often cited is of Downtown Beirut’s reconstruction in the 1990s after the Lebanese civil war. Tasked with rebuilding Beirut, the company, Solidere, instead gave it a face lift, forcing out residents and small shop owners to make way for luxury hotels, high-end retailers, and ritzy office complexes.

Shafei is sensitive to the analogy. He preemptively insists that Al-Ismaelia is no Solidere. “That was a top-down change that happened,” he says. “Our project is more organic. We want to respect the existing culture in Downtown, the existing social fabric in Downtown — impact that to an extent, but without taking away the spirit of Downtown.”

To that end, Al-Ismaelia has worked assiduously to reassure residents and other Downtown stakeholders. It has contracted the Institute for International Urban Development, an affiliate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, to help it formulate its development plans. It has also collaborated with local art and cultural groups to stage regular galleries and exhibitions. Al-Ismaelia’s activity on this front, Shafei says, is part and parcel of its goal of reviving Downtown as an inclusive social and cultural center.

The group’s outreach hasn’t gone unnoticed. Vittoria Capresi of the Architecture and Urban Design program at the German University in Cairo praises Al-Ismaelia’s investment in the arts, citing in particular its collaboration with the Townhouse Gallery, a contemporary art gallery off Talaat Harb Square. “I think that the only way to sustain architecture is to reinforce the link between the inhabitants and the people who are doing something from an architectural or artistic or whatever point of view,” she explains. “So the work of Townhouse Gallery is fundamental to revitalize that area.”

Capresi wonders, however, whether Al-Ismaelia is in it for the long-haul. She recalls a meeting with Shafei a couple years back, at which he explained the group’s intentions to her and some of her colleagues. “Karim was explaining to me that they signed a kind of contract that Townhouse would stay for 10 years. And then, I forgot to ask, ‘What after?’ What would happen afterwards?”

Again, Al-Ismaelia’s precise intentions are somewhat opaque. When asked what the group has in mind for the coming years, Shafei offers only, “What we want to do is start with one project at a time — see how it integrates with the environment around it and go for the next one or two projects, and go from there. So probably by the end of this year, beginning of next, we should start with one of our projects. Maybe a number of restaurants or a small boutique hotel or something like that. And then from there, every six months to a year, launch a new initiative.”

While Al-Ismaelia has foresworn the slash-and-burn model of Solidere, it makes no secret of its desire to effect significant changes to the Downtown landscape. Shafei readily concedes that the group’s goals amount to “gentrification” and speaks openly of his desire to see certain economic activities displaced from Downtown. “We think that some of the functions that are in Downtown probably should not be here. So we don’t think that warehousing should be one of the activities in Downtown. We don’t think that workshops manufacturing T-shirts should be located Downtown. That’s a city center at the end of the day, and there are industrial zones where such functions should exist.”

Shafei is adamant, though, that carving out space in Downtown for higher-end residents and retailers need not work to the detriment of the area’s less wealthy denizens. That said, he is keen to supplant the informal economic activities that account for at least one-third of Egypt’s GDP with established domestic and international vendors: “Having a retailer that abides by the law, that respects the visual space in Downtown, respects the urban heritage and the social heritage does not mean that it’s going to be an expensive retailer.” By way of example, he cites Walmart and Carrefour as formal economy retailers that sell affordable goods.

Courtesy Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments

Rent control laws keep rent so low that they disincentivize the upkeep of Downtown properties.

But such gentrifying initiatives are sure to place pressure on many of Downtown’s poorer residents. As Ralph Bodenstein of Cairo University, an expert on Islamic architecture, notes, “One should always be aware that there’s also a considerable part of cheap residential space that many people depend on and that shouldn’t necessarily be discarded with completely. And I’m not talking only about the formal flats in the buildings, but also these floors on top of buildings where poorer people live. One has to take this into consideration. It might be necessary to integrate that into a larger, more encompassing plan of saving Downtown. But this is something that Ismaelia company is not — that’s not their scope.”

As of yet, Al-Ismaelia’s reassurances have done little to win over public opinion. In the end, though, the company’s relatively minor presence in Downtown — it owns just 20 of almost 500 buildings — should preclude it from realizing its most ambitious designs for the city. Observes Walter Armbrust, “Personally, I think that Downtown is a fairly amorphous area. I don’t think it makes that much difference if Ismaelia comes in and buys 40 buildings and rents them out to relatively high rent-paying tenants.”

Still, he cautions, “Of course there’s also the dynamic that they want to buy more […] If they acquire 80 buildings, 100 buildings — enough contiguous buildings that they can affect what happens in the streets — then maybe that’s something to worry about in terms of them changing the fabric, the aura of the Downtown area.”

Ironically, Shafei’s reassurances to those worried about Al-Ismaelia’s impact are nearly identical to Armbrust’s. When asked if the group’s acquisitions would drive up prices throughout Downtown, Shafei responds, “I don’t think this is entirely true. We own 20 buildings out of about 470 or 480 [buildings in] Downtown. So basically we have less than 5% of Downtown. It’s a very small […] bit that we have bought so far. And we can’t go much further without further funding, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to have more funding, so maybe we’ll reach 30 buildings, 25 buildings, and that’s the maximum that we’ll be able to buy.”

The merits of Al-Ismaelia’s plans notwithstanding, its foray into the real estate market has underlined the immense obstacles to urban revitalization. One of the prime culprits, analysts agree, is rent-control laws first instituted in the 1950s. By keeping rents artificially low, the laws disincentivize the upkeep of Downtown properties. They also precluded all but the wealthiest of conglomerates from injecting new capital into the real estate market.

Aly Gabr explains that for a group like Al-Ismaelia to acquire a new property, it must do two things: “First of all, buy the property, which means that they get something like LE 300 or LE 400 a month from rent, which is nothing. Then, they have to pay each individual in every flat a sum of money to evacuate the flat. So it cannot be an individual. It has to be a group of very rich people. There has been very little intervention [in Downtown real estate]. It is not in everyone’s capabilities to intervene.” Thus, even companies with über-rich backers like Al-Ismaelia find themselves quickly running up against the limits of their resources.

Meanwhile the government, which owns about half of the buildings in Downtown, has shown little inclination to reform the archaic rent control laws. After all, says Gabr, many prominent politicians own rent-controlled apartments themselves. Nor has the government made investing in the area a priority. Instead, it has committed its resources disproportionately to the burgeoning satellite cities in the desert, which despite housing less than five percent of Greater Cairo’s population receive more than one-fifth of its housing budget. Even longtime Downtown fixtures like the Mugamma are being considered for relocation to the peripheries of the city.

And so, whatever Al-Ismaelia’s impact on Downtown, it will pale in comparison to the much larger forces driving Cairo’s urban development, one characterized by scant investment in Downtown — not to mention the sprawling informal settlements that are absorbing more than three-fourths of the city’s population growth — and an almost compulsive focus on building a new Cairo, far removed, both geographically and conceptually, from the chaotic vitality of its core. For now, it would seem, any significant revival of Downtown Cairo, for better or worse, is on indefinite hold. bt

More Bora

My post for the New York Times on Tuesday about Bora Milutnovic in Qatar was based on a day I spent with the Serbian coaching legend a month ago. Cruising around Doha in Bora’s Nissan SUV as he bounced between hailing Qatar’s greatness and proffering life advice counts as one of the more surreal experiences of my life. Not everything from the 10-plus hours I spent with Bora could make it into the piece, so I’ve included some other highlights below.

  •  It was hard to tell how much Bora actually knew (or cared) about what exactly I was doing in Qatar, but he was fascinated by the idea of a 22-year-old American journalist in the Middle East. Within five minutes of picking me up outside the Islamic Art Museum, he started to offer career advice, including a suggestion that I go to Afghanistan and/or Syria. I told him I’d think about it, but that the two seemed a little dangerous at the moment and Egypt was treating me well. Bora seemed unimpressed by the logic.
  • Our first stop was the hotel where the Qatari Under 19 national team’s competitors in an upcoming tournament were staying. Before we made it across the lobby to the cafe, Bora made sure to introduce himself to the Greek team milling about the entrance. Extending both arms fully forward, Superman-style, he shouted “Greece!” and started semi-running in their direction. A few of the players, no doubt too young to recognize from his heyday this short bespectacled man with the messy silver hair, stared at him the way one might an overly bellicose vagrant in the street.
  • Besides Qatar and Qatari soccer, Bora’s main interest these days seems to be his “Tweeeeter” account (it took me a few times to understand what he was referring to) in China. Bora regularly sends messages to someone in China (where he coached from 2000-2002) to translate. I’m still not sure if it’s a Twitter or some Chinese microblog (Twitter’s banned in China, mish keda?), but I can attest to the fact that Bora has over 850,000 followers. He joked (or maybe not?) that he planned to return to China once he hit 1 million.
  • The content on his “Tweeeeter” was of the utmost concern to Bora. He planned to begin sharing every Monday an inspirational quote he’d read somewhere with his followers. (Bora’s a sucker for inspirational quotes, especially from Vince Lombardi and John Wooden. They’re all over Aspire Academy.) I was enlisted to draft a brief message informing Bora’s followers of this upcoming offering. I considered demanding a fee, but chose to do this one pro bono. So, there’s a good chance that my three-sentence statement inviting people in China to read “inspirational messages [Bora’s] encountered that help [him] make better sense of life” is floating around the Chinese interwebs. If you see it, let me know.
  • The Under-19s’ practice featured a visit from Qatari Football Association President Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmad Al Thani, a member of the royal family. After greeting all the players, he sat on the sideline, half-observing practice, while simultaneously sipping tea, texting, and fielding phone calls through his head set.
  • There’s not much to do in Qatar besides drive your (very expensive) car really fast. According to one of the coaches, insurance companies refuse to insure expensive cars. He relayed a bit of advice he’d heard: “If you’re gonna buy a car, make sure you have enough money to buy it twice.”
  • Before the party, Bora and I made a stop at a flower shop. It turned out Bora’s Serbian expat friend whose wife’s birthday party we were headed to did not have a present for his wife. And so, it evidently became Bora’s responsibility to get one for her. After he spent a half-hour cutting and packing as many woodchips as humanly possible into the glass box holding the flower pot and then bargaining the price down 20 Qatari Riyal, I was enlisted in the car to hold the box perfectly still between my thighs, lest one of the White Wonder lilies be damaged en route. Which explains why when we arrived at the house, the birthday girl opened the front door to find a slightly confused-looking American she’d never seen before bearing her husband’s birthday gift.
  • Humblebrag: Bora was very impressed by my soccer abilities. In fact, I even beat him in a few games of soccer golf before the U-19s’ practice (although he’d never admit it). “American journalist with good touch,” he kept repeating bemusedly. I tried to explain that I’d played my entire life, including Division 1 ball just last year. Bora did after all coach in the US and has a house in California. It was to no avail. His last words to me as he dropped me off at the hotel: “I’m very pleased to meet you—an American with a good touch!”

Mr. Bora Goes to Qatar

Cross posted from the New York Times

If the United Nations had a soccer team, Bora Milutinovic would undoubtedly be its coach.
Associated Press, 1993/If the United Nations had a soccer team, Bora Milutinovic would undoubtedly be its coach.

Bora Milutinovic, the renowned international soccer coach, is notoriously hard to pin down.

Back when he coached the United States in the early 1990s, his constant evasions about rosters and tactics led one reporter to quip, “Milutinovic speaks five languages fluidly, but doesn’t answer tough questions completely in any of them.”

One afternoon last month, Bora (he operates on a strictly first-name basis) was leading a whirlwind tour of one of Qatar’s countless monuments to its staggering wealth — this an obscenely lavish indoor sports facility in the capital, Doha, containing a full-size soccer field, multiple state-of-the-art weight rooms and an Olympic-length swimming pool. “This is the best example of how people have dreams to give best opportunity to people of Qatar,” he said.

The pint-size Persian Gulf peninsula boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world. But Bora maintains that money has little to do with it. “No, no, no. Not just that,” he said when the question comes up. But before elaborating, he snakes around the approaching corner and into the men’s room.

Some 20 minutes later, he finally circles back. “Sure, money is important,” he concedes, “but it’s also important to have the goal of giving a chance to people.” He adds that Qatar doesn’t have political problems because “political problems are social problems and the people here are being taken care of.”

Bora, 68, who since 1983 has managed eight different national teams — from Mexico in 1983 to Iraq in 2009 — insists he is done coaching. Not that he’s stuck to that same vow in the past. But the so-called miracle worker of global soccer is enjoying his new job as, well, it’s not entirely clear. When asked what he does in Qatar, Bora flashes an impish grin and replies: “I don’t have a role. Only I share my experience.”

That’s not exactly true. Officially, Bora’s an adviser at Aspire Academy, whose facilities he has just been flaunting, a sporting institute for Qatar’s elite young athletes. Unofficially, he’s a jack of all trades for Qatari sport — consultant, goodwill ambassador, and indefatigable salesman.

It’s in this last role that Bora thrives. He settled in Qatar in 2009 to serve as “bid ambassador” for its successful campaign to host the 2022 World Cup and counts helping the sleepy emirate of 1.7 million people upset a field of the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea among his finest accomplishments. “I’m very happy,” he said, beaming about the experience. “I joke with the people. They ask me: ‘Bora how you explain this?’ This is easy: my team always wins.”

Indeed, Bora has won a lot over his career. Of the eight different national teams he’s coached, Bora has taken a record five to the World Cup. At the 1994 World Cup in the United States, he led a crew of journeymen to a narrow second-round defeat to eventual champion Brazil.

Characteristically, the Serb with the messy hair and mad scientist persona also succeeded in confounding everyone around him. “You really have to put all your faith and believe in what he’s doing,” defender Alexi Lalas told The New York Times weeks before the tournament. “A lot of times, it’s hard, because I have no idea what he’s doing.”

Bora returned to the States in 1998 to coach the then New York/New Jersey MetroStars of M.L.S. His hapless squad registered one of the worst records in league history in 1999. Thirteen years on, he’s keen to defend his honor.

“You have to look the conditions I have to work,” he launches in. “You know who is Tom Howard?”

As in Tim Howard?

“You know who put him in first team ever?” he continues, not missing a beat. “You know what they tell me. I’m nuts. But you know what happened. Two years after, he go in Manchester, and now how you going to judge me?”

Milutinovic was the coach of Iraq when it tried to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Associated Press/Milutinovic was the coach of Iraq in 2009 … for three weeks.

But Bora’s track record since the late ‘90s has fallen well short of the heights of his early years. His last gig, coaching Iraq in 2009, lasted just three weeks.

In Qatar, Bora has regained his swagger. Everyone in Doha seems to know Mr. Bora. At one hotel he pays a visit to, about 20 employees huddle around the front desk, swooning, as he exits. Bora reciprocates with a few wisecracks about the spotty service. Later in the day, at the Qatar Under-19 national team’s training session, Bora packs the energy of a little kid. “Il faut pas dormir!” he yells in faux seriousness at a group of tired-looking players before insisting on a game of soccer golf. All the while, he keeps his eyes on the prize. “Do you see all the lights?” he said dramatically, gesturing around the six-field facility, its immaculately kept grounds ringed by a typical Qatari tableau of desert and half-complete construction projects.

From there, Bora’s off to one of Doha’s expat-rich gated communities, where it’s his Serbian expat friend’s wife’s birthday. In an elegant home, adorned with leafy plants and family photos, smartly-dressed Serbs muse about life in Qatar over some of the kingdom’s preciously rare alcohol. Like most of Qatar’s residents, who come temporarily to tap into the gas-rich nation’s almost unfathomable wealth, they’re less effusive about their adopted home. It’s a decent enough place to raise children, said the host, a doctor, since Qatar is safe and they teach English in school. Another finds his adopted country of skyscrapers malls, and deserted sidewalks less than inspiring. “If I’m still here in 2022 [for the World Cup], I’m going to kill myself!” he said, laughing.

Meanwhile, out back by the swimming pool, Bora is regaling a captive audience with reminiscences on the glory days. “My players in ‘94 had character. [Marcelo] Balboa, [Alexi] Lalas. Only [Landon] Donovan and [Tim] Howard — maybe [Michael] Bradley — from today make team back then.” Before long, it’s time to leave. Bora’s headed to a nearby stadium to catch Egypt play Congo in a friendly match. The guard at the V.I.P. entrance astonishingly has never heard of Bora but lets him through anyway. Only a few hundred fans are expected after all.

Earlier in the day, international soccer’s ultimate adventurer tried to explain why, after bouncing around Mexico and China and Nigeria and the U.S., he has remained all this time in a country that’s been referred to more than once as the most boring on earth. Asked if money was a factor, Bora shook his head and paused a moment. As he began to answer, the usual bombast was missing. “Money is not important,” he said. “What’s important is that people respect what I did. For this I’m very — how do you say? — grateful.”