As superheroes go, four grandmothers steeped in the heritage of the UAE hardly seem like they can compare to the likes of Batman or Spiderman.
Yet it was a college assignment to create a benevolent super-powerful character that would eventually take Mohammed Saeed Harib from a Dh9,000 a month wage-slave to award-winning head of his own international multi-million dollar production company.
Harib, 30, is the creator of the Middle East's first and most-popular 3D animation, Freej, and its four worldly-wise grannies – Um Saeed, Um Saloom, Um Allawi, and Umm Khammas.
Such is their popularity, Freej has spawned an entire industry of official merchandise – from stationery to car air-fresheners – all overseen by Harib's Lammtara Productions.
But all of this is nothing to what the future holds for Freej – and Harib – with multi-million dirham plans unveiled last week for Freej Dubailand. This four million sq ft themed attraction of family rides will rub shoulders with international heavyweights such as Universal Studios, Dreamworks, Marvel, Six Flags and Legoland, all set for theme parks in Dubailand.
And more impressively, once complete in 2013, Freej Dubailand will catapult the brand and the characters onto a global stage – drawing in tens of thousands of tourists who will flock to Dubai. "It has been an unbelievable journey so far and it is not going to stop just here," Harib said.
"One day Lammtara Pictures will emerge as a leading entertainment provider on an international level. When Tatweer acquired 30 per cent, that was a massive development as far as we were concerned. But what followed with Dubailand was much bigger. We have prepared the detailed plans for the four dedicated zones of Freej Dubailand." The seeds of Freej can be traced back more than 10 years when, as a 19-year-old student, Harib decided to quit his architecture course at North Eastern University in Boston, the United States.
His love of drawing led to Harib studying animation and the life-changing class where there were no Arab superheros.
What started off as a six-page exercise for his bachelor's degree in 1998 took Harib on a path that would see him crowned 2007 Entrepreneur of the Year and Young CEO of the Year by CEO Middle East Magazine.
"The first idea of Freej emerged in 1998 during that animation class. That is when I created Um Saeed, the eldest and wisest member of the group," says Harib.
For two years after the completion of his graduate programme, Harib continued to work on his characters, and by the time he took a marketing job with Dubai Media City, his four characters were ready.
"I joined Media City in 2003 to work as a brand co-ordinator for a salary of Dh9,000 per month. That was when I designed the logo of Dubai Media City. Meanwhile, I was asked by Dubai TV to create a photography show on Dubai. It provided me with an opportunity to go around the nook and corner of the city," said Harib.
"Everything I learned until then helped me create the animation for Freej. Here was our city growing from a small city to one which the world envies. But, meanwhile, what was getting lost was the intricate cultural element and the togetherness among and between families," he said.
Freej, he says, was a dream that required a lot of hard work and support to make it a reality. But his passion was to give people of the region, and especially the UAE, its first animated series.
"In 2004, I started thinking seriously about my show," said Harib, who then created a small demo to test the concept.
"I approached the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment for Young Business Leaders (SME) for funding and there was initial scepticism. We drew up a budget of Dh1 million. They asked me to prepare a detailed business plan. It was all so new to me then. I learnt everything from creating business plans and putting sponsorship deals together. By the time I prepared the plan and delivered, the cost of production had increased to Dh4.2m, thanks to inflation."
SME agreed to a Dh3m funding and Harib managed to get du to fund the remaining amount in a three-year promotion deal.
In September 2005, Harib set up Lammtara and produced the first series of programmes, which was aired on Dubai TV for 15 minutes each over 15 days during Ramadan.
"The response was overwhelming. I created the programme for a target audience between the ages of 18 and 35, especially women. They are the most influential category, they are the ones who raise kids and inculcate morals in the younger generation and marketing-wise they are the greatest tool.
"By just word of mouth they can do wonders. And they have the best buying power," he said. "The communication and dialogue are meant for a generation aged between 18 and 35 but that does not mean the children cannot enjoy the programme.
"Women loved it because it talked about issues that were relevant and old people loved it because it was about them. So, that way, I ended up capturing the imagination and attention of all categories of people," said Harib.
The programme was so successful, Harib managed to return SME's grant and also earn enough to produce the second set of programmes that were aired during last year's Ramadan. Viewers of all ages have voted the show the most entertaining in several polls.
More recently, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, awarded Harib the Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Today, the best known superheros in the world are American. But in the future, children around the world could be reading interesting comic books about the lives of four Dubai pensioners.
The theme park
Developers behind Freej Dubailand say the theme park will offer innovative rides, breathtaking attractions and fun-filled experiences.
It will have two hotels each of 300 rooms, plus the world's tallest wind tower. Once complete, it will be the first theme park to focus on Arab culture and creativity, heritage and achievement.
Dubailand will be split into four distinct areas. Freej The world of old Dubai viewed through the lens of Harib's animated creations. It is designed as a replica of the show's famous neighbourhood with houses where visitors can interact with residents.
The main attractions include Um Khammas' kitchen show and Um Saeed's spinning cup and Abood's jungle gym Restaurants will include Um Khammas' restaurant, Khalid Hurriya sports café, cartoon café, Um Saeed's coffee and tea shop. Some of the retail attractions are Freej world shop, Allawis gadgets, Um Saloom's sleepover, Agha's sundries.
Golden Age of Discovery
The golden age of discovery celebrates the magnificent contribution that the Arab and Muslim scholars made to science and technology and how these accomplishments have influenced today's world. The section will be linked through the notion of "standing on the shoulder of giants", to familiarise visitors with the silk traders road. An interactive exhibit will guide visitors through the colourful history of Arab explorers and their role in the development of this region's culture.
Window of UAE
The highest point in Freej Dubailand, this section aims to portray the cultural heritage of the UAE by contrasting the old with the new. Visitors can embark on a journey aboard the Freej Carousel and discover the seven emirates by sailing down the river in Abood's Journey.
The main attractions are Wild Wind Tower – one of the tallest in the world – Flight of the Falcons plus Freej carousel and Abood's journey.
Myths and Legends
Will create a replica of a land filled with fantastic structures, beautiful palaces and crumbling Asian cities taking visitors down a haunted track aboard the Djinn King's Ring and a haunted mansion. Main attractions at the Dubailand theme park are Seas of Bu Darya, the Fox and his Tail and Um Al Duwais Haunt.