Saudi’s Bid to Bring Art and Cultural Talent to the Fore

Ithra means ‘enrichment’ — and the centre in Dammam more than lives up to its name.

Global cultural and creative industries have generated a staggering $2.2tn in annual revenues and created 30 million jobs, according to a 2017 UNESCO study.

In the MENA region, creative industry growth is at more than 10 percent per year — and consumers, especially younger generations, are increasingly seeking out cultural experiences.

The King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture — also known as Ithra — is based in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. It offers something unique: a world-class cultural, artistic and creative offering that tells a Saudi story. Ithra means “enrichment”, and this is a place for people of all ages to enjoy and explore human potential through a variety of programmes that live up to the centre’s title.

Ithra, Saudi National Day

Saudi National Day

Policymakers in this part of the world recognise what a vital role culture plays — not just in intellectual or elite sectors, but for society at large. Culture has become an economic engine, with significant ESG impacts — it is more than a mere channel of communication and exchange of ideas.

Culture shapes identity. And identity has important implications for international diplomacy, influence, and soft power. Saudi Arabia has integrated this awareness into its national development strategy. Saudi Vision 2030 describes culture as “essential to our quality of life”. Along with funding, Saudi Arabia has passed specific legislation aimed at facilitating cultural engagement, including lifting bans on cinema and granting tourist visas.

Flagship projects such as Ithra are Arab-focused; they go beyond the replication of Western cultural models and focus more on Saudi creatives and communities. Ithra finds itself at the unique intersection of policy, funding, training, public platforms, networking, opportunities and support for grassroots efforts.

Ithra’s initiatives, programmes and activities are based on five pillars: creativity, culture, knowledge, art and community. These pillars move in parallel to achieve three specific strategic goals: the development of creative skills, nurturing and promoting national talent, and supporting content production.

This positions Ithra as a major platform for fostering creativity and cultural exchange in the Kingdom and the rest of the world. The aim is to uncover talent, encourage and inspire creativity, and provide minds of all ages with the tools to be innovative, transforming ideas into marketable products via the latest in world-class technologies.

The desire to build a world-class library in Dhahran was the inception of what has become a much larger cultural hub housing museums, galleries, a theatre, an arthouse cinema, a great hall, offices, workshop spaces, a technology and design “ideas lab”, youth programmes, cafes, and restaurants. The building was constructed using sustainable and environmentally friendly materials and methods — a certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold structure.

The space has become a haven for artists and art consumers, with broad and multi-dimensional offerings.

Tanween, Ithra’s design conference, is the first and largest creative platform in Saudi Arabia, exploring technology and innovation in design, architecture, and the arts. It hosts a programme of seminars, talks, exhibitions, masterclasses, and training workshops.

Ithra’s mission revolves around the core concepts of knowledge, creativity, and innovation, as well as tolerance and diversity. These principles weave together to form a “knowledge society”, aiming to cultivate citizens and encourage originality without fear of failure. Ithra offers artists of all disciplines an environment where they can explore, work, and hone their skills.

The approach to programming is a cross-cultural one. This is evident in the building itself, where rammed earth was used to represent traditional Saudi construction methods, then combined with a complex system of steel pipes to produce a design that had never been done before. A collaboration with 40 countries led to the machinery that enabled the creation of the building — another gleam of its global, value-adding, and innovative aspects.

The building opened its doors at the end of 2018; since then, it has been instrumental in developing Saudi Arabia’s arts and creative infrastructure. The Ithra Academy, launched in 2021, provides resources to every level of creative professionals, from rising talents to seasoned professionals.

The Ithra Content Initiative funds Arabic content every year — films, songs, podcasts, TV shows, books, translations, platforms and websites. Over the next five years, the Cultural Centre aims to champion the Arabic language for its beauty and relevance for generations to come.

Several programmes focus on the creation of a knowledge-based society. At the Ithra Cultural Majlis, intellectuals, thinkers and writers gather during Ramadan to discuss a diverse selection of cultural and philosophical topics.

The iRead programme was developed to inspire a new generation of readers and to promote Arabic publications and literature. By continuously creating new ways to bring diverse talents together to spark new ideas, Ithra strives to instil a passion for art — in all its forms, for everyone. The annual Ithra Art Prize awards $100,000 for a single work of contemporary art that will join the permanent collection.

Developing Saudi filmmaking is another Ithra priority. Cinema has only recently started to emerge, but is already positioning the kingdom in the local, regional, and international film scene. The programme aims to nurture and promote Saudi talent by producing films, hosting events, and training aspiring filmmakers.

At the heart of Ithra is the community. The curated programmes seek to engage the public and build a knowledge-based society. By volunteering at Ithra, community members can develop skills and gain professional experience to help them to succeed in today’s competitive workplaces.

As a cultural institution, Ithra takes an active role in fostering academic research, pioneering technology, and presenting programmes that develop the creative arts. Under the leadership of Director Abdullah Alrashid, it has become known as an incubator for talent in the community, as well as attracting artists from all over the world.

By tackling complex, long-term problems to make a real impact, Ithra plays a crucial role in initiating intellectual and cultural debate.

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