Arabs Unseen: Emirati creator of Freej builds a legend

The Dubai artist Mohammed Saeed Harib conceived and produced the animation series inspired by his grandmother. It is what Emiratis wanted – quality, locally produced content about their own culture. It is ‘unlike anything the Arab world has ever seen’.

Mohammed Saeed Hareb, the creator and producer of Freej, at his studio, Lammtara. Reem Mohammed / The National
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Today we present the last in our series of excerpts from Arabs Unseen, a series of profile of the region's entrepreneurs by Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi, the executive chairman of Manama-based Investcorp and the chairman of National Bank of Oman. Mr Alardhi tells the story of Mohammed Saeed Harib of Dubai who, inspired by his grandmother, went on to produce the cartoon Freej, featuring four elder Emirati women: Um Saloom, Um Allawi, Um Saeed and Um Khammas.

The excerpt

Though he had never studied business, Mohammed has managed to build a very big one. As the chairman of Lammtara Art Production, the company he founded in 2005, one year before Freej first hit the air, he oversees a cast of more than 500 employees. Yet even as he captains that ship, an operation of many moving parts, Mohammed remains the creative force driving it forward. "From the start, I knew I did not want to specialise in just one thing," he says. "I wanted to be a jack of all trades, and, in time, an ace in a few of them."

That he is. Hands-on at each stage of the production process, Mohammed has honed his skills in everything, from photography to acting. "I've picked up bits of knowledge from here and there," he says. "And when you combine that with creative energy, the sky is the limit." On top of all that, Mohammed also works with the screenwriters to finalise the script for every episode. "It's a feeling," he says. "It could come from a line of poe­try, or a phrase, or just an idea – and we build the show around it." Freej fans, it seems, can't get enough.

The Lammtara studio, a renovated warehouse in central Dubai, resembles the sleek art galleries that line the same street: high ceilings, stone floors, modernist decor. In the main foyer, above a long glass table Mohammed designed himself, is a framed print of Um Allawi in the style of the Mona Lisa. When I visited the studio, the team was hard at work on season 5, fine-tuning every last detail – the colour of trees, the sound of a fountain – while Mohammed floated from room to room, crouching over shoulders, fielding questions, conducting the orchestra.

“I love going to my office,” he told me. “Because it’s my office, I give more. I am a much more productive person.” But in the UAE, he said, few nationals choose that path. “The state has provided them with a safety net; it’s very easy to get a government job, which pays very well.” Working in the private sector can be, by comparison, quite hard. “And creating your own company,” he added, grinning. “Well, that’s even harder.”

For Mohammed, success didn't come easily. Conceiving Freej was one thing. Convincing Dubai's media executives to embrace his vision of a 3D animated show starring septuagenarians sipping coffee, slinging insults and solving society's problems, was quite another. None had ever aired an animated show. It didn't help matters that Mohammed was an industry novice no more familiar with a financial model than he was with the Periodic Table. "I was an artist, so the numbers were very foreign to me," he says. "But I was blessed to be working in Dubai Media City, which had a lot of experience developing business plans for media projects."

Mohammed first shared the idea with the chief executive of Dubai Media City, who took it on as a kind of experiment in new media. After a brief assessment, the budget came back at US$2 million. “That’s enough to scare anyone,” he says, particularly in an industry with no experience in animation and a dearth of original programming. “They were simply importing shows from America and dubbing them, and we knew that people weren’t satisfied with this – that many Emiratis wanted to see quality, locally produced content about their own culture.”

Though the chief executive of Dubai Media City loved the idea, he couldn't come up with $2m, and urged Mohammed to explore ways he could bring that number down, perhaps by working with other com­panies. "So I did," he says. "I read everything I could find, I talked to experts, and I travelled around the region to figure out how we could make Freej for as cheaply as possible." After three full years of exhaustive research, Mohammed had managed to trim the budget by about half, and, at last, he says, persistence paid off. "I had been knocking on their door for three years. Finally they said, OK, enough. Our job is to support you if your business makes sense, and, well, it's a wild one, all right – but we think it does."

Still, he says, it was only a loan. "They gave me all the money, and in five years, I had to give it all back, plus 5 per cent interest." Right away, Mohammed set about work, rushing to make his long-held vision a reality; and then, as luck would have it, another media group emerged on the scene. "It happened to be right before my show was to go on air," he says. "So I found myself nicely positioned between two telecom companies in a bidding war for this new idea, for the Arab world's first-ever cartoon." Up till then, Moh­ammed had only ever hoped he could cover his costs. By the time the first episode was broadcast, he had not only paid back the loan but had made Dh1m.

If there were any lingering doubts about how well the show would do, or that Arab audiences might not take so easily to a cartoon, the first season of Freej put those doubts to rest. In 2006, the year the UAE was first introduced to Um Saeed and her merry band of masked grannies, Freej was far and away the most watched show in the land. In fact, so strong were the season one ratings, that the station, Sama Dubai, promptly commissioned two more. To all but Mohammed, Freej was an improbable success; its first run was a wildly impressive feat few believed he could really pull off, and as such, its creators had lived up to their name.

The magic of the first

After three successful seasons, Mohammed needed a break. He had been so fast out of the gate, had such an impact from the very start, that the expectations he’d created the demand for more and more and more, had begun to test his limits. Having laboured so long and hard to get the show off the ground, to launch a pioneering enterprise unlike anything the Arab world had ever seen, he was suddenly confronted with a challenge he hadn’t anticipated.

"You have to continuously innovate," he says. Although in its second and third seasons, Freej was still the number one show in Arabia, "nothing could ever match the magic of that first one," he says. "It just can't be as good." Worried that he would spend the rest of his career chasing a ghost, and going only downhill, Mohammed took a radical step. Risking the wrath of Freej fans everywhere, and putting in some peril the brand he had built from scratch, the artist-turned-executive decided to take a year off. He would rest and recharge, and then he would return.

No one, not even Mohammed, could have predicted the turn things would take over the next few months. With time to himself, he was able to tap more deeply into the well of creativity that had spawned Freej in the first place. If there was one way to top that feat, he knew, it was with an equally ambitious undertaking, something as big and bold as his much-loved masterpiece. "So I jumped med­iums," he says. "We tried to do for theatre what we did for TV." The result was, in its own way, no less impressive.

Indeed, just when everyone thought his best work was behind him, Mohammed followed up the region's first-ever cartoon TV show with the largest-ever Arabic theatrical production – a dazzling, over-the-top event, held to celebrate the UAE's 41st National Day in December 2012. Performed at Dubai's Ductac Mall of the Emirates, Freej Folklore combined dance, drama, film and animation with a live score by the London Philharmonic for "a magical journey of discovery through the myths and legends of Arabia".

If Arab audiences are unaccustomed to theatre, they didn't show it; 20,000 spectators turned out to see Freej Folklore over the course of the show's 10-day run, and critics were full of praise: "Cirque du Soleil meets DreamWorks," declared The National. For Mohammed, though, the greatest endorsement of all was the deal that came about as a direct result of that directorial debut: an agreement with the Government of Dubai to create a Freej Theme Park, in exchange for a 30 per cent stake in his company.

“That was basically nirvana,” he says. “Five years before, I was struggling to get a loan, and now I had my own theme park.”

Unfortunately, the financial crisis forced the government to scale back or cancel a number of projects, and plans for the park were eventually scrapped. But Mohammed knew Freej had a bright future nonetheless, and decided to take another year off to pursue different projects. One of them was directing the UAE's National Day Celebration. Mohammed's selection marked the first time in the country's history that a UAE national had been tapped to take the reins of the big event. "It had always been a foreign company," he says. "That was really the highlight of my career as an event director."

He also used the time off to make his first foray into film – and at the international level no less. Mohammed was one of the nine directors from around the world selected to contribute to a movie adaptation of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet by executive producer Salma Hayek. Written and directed by Roger Allers, the director of The Lion King, the film features individual “chapters” directed by acclaimed animators, all of them Oscar nominees and winners of distinguished awards. “I’m the only guy who didn’t win anything,” Mohammed laughs. “It was such a treat to work with a group of legends like that, and to meet Salma Hayek, who told me she really liked my chapter.”

Months later, Mohammed came back with the fourth season of Freej. "Whenever you're out of the game that long, people tend to forget about you," he says. "But people never forgot about us, and that's the mark, I think, of a very strong brand."

* From the book Arabs Unseen by Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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