Persistence pays off for Freej creator

The Life: The first time Mohammed Saeed Harib, the Emirati animation director, realised the scale of his success was in 2006, shortly after his animated series Freej had aired on TV.

Mohammed Saeed Harib created the much-loved animated series Freej, which captures the nuances of modern-day UAE life. Sarah Dea / The National
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The first time Mohammed Saeed Harib, the Emirati animation director, realised the scale of his success was in 2006, shortly after his animated series Freej had aired on TV.
"I remember being in a mall in Dubai. People started chasing me, asking for my autograph," laughs the 36-year-old. "It was completely crazy."
Despite being among the most innovative entrepreneurs in the country, Mr Harib who is the chairman of Lammtara Art Production and recently gave a talk as part of the "Art Conversations" programme at the Dubai Ladies Club, has never studied business.
He says he only attended the Northeastern University of Boston because his friends were going and it sounded like fun. Studying architecture at first, he failed his first year and was kicked off the course. He switched to general arts instead and took a course in animation.
"I was asked to invent a superhero character which represented the culture of my country," says Mr Harib. "At first I produced the kind of character that you see in comic books - macho and tough. But my teacher laughed at me. He said: 'Does this really represent your modern day culture? I want you to think outside the box'."
This was how the idea for Freej - the much-loved animated series, featuring caricatures of Emirati grandmothers and capturing the nuances of modern UAE life - was born.
That was 1998, however, and it was years before the cartoon series appeared on Dubai TV with Mr Harib revealing he encountered many obstacles bringing the project to life.
"Not only did I have to find backing to fund it, I had to persuade people here that it was something that could work."
It worked so well, however, that within weeks of it being aired, the entire nation was talking about it. In 2007, plans were drawn up to build a Freej theme park in Dubai. However the Dh1.2 billion project by Tatweer was put on hold indefinitely during the recession.
"It may or may not happen in the future," says Mr Harib, shifting his shoulders. "Tatweer is no longer operating and its projects are being moved to another Dubai Holding company. But it's OK either way. I'm happy with my success."
So what is his secret? "Persistence," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm a very persistent person by nature. If you believe in something, it will eventually work out. But you have to really believe.
"Animation was considered taboo in my culture when I first studied it. However my father was an open-minded person and he used to say: 'Study what makes you happy'.
"I'm grateful for the support of my family and the people who encouraged me along the way. I met a number of key people over the years who saw something in what I was doing. That gave me hope."
It also gave him the investment he needed to fund such a massive project. Seven years on from Freej's debut and the fifth season of is due to be aired in a month's time.
Mr Harib also has a feature-length film in the making, with the director of The Lion King Roger Allers and produced by the Hollywood actress Salma Hayek.
Both projects, he says, are takes on modern-day Emirati society. "They come from the perspective of a simplistic mindset, digesting the sophistication of a city, invaded with very new ideas.
"They question how we as a people are responding to modern changes. Are we for example letting go of our morals, our individuality, our identity?" he says.
Last year, Mr Harib worked as a creative consultant on a project called Cruel Summer which featured Kanye West and was launched in the Cannes Film Festival.
He is also working on his first feature film with Image Nation in Abu Dhabi, which he describes as "an untitled sports commentary based around football".
His success is not limited to animated movies. Describing himself as a "brand", he points out that he also directs events, designs logos and he is an expert on photography.
His advice to other young entrepreneurs and artists?
"Don't work for the sake of working and face major setbacks head- on. Never give up."