The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture is the newest addition to the thriving cultural scene in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Center, otherwise known as “Ithra,” the Arabic word for enrichment, is located in Saudi Aramco in Dhahran in the center of the petroleum company. As a Saudi Aramco initiative, Ithra is a cultural center that hosts a theater, museum, library, Knowledge Tower, Idea Lab, Energy Exhibit, and a great hall.

Ithra has been on the agenda of Saudi Aramco for quite some time when in 1933 King Abdulaziz Al Saud insisted on providing more opportunities for Saudi citizens. To honor his vision, his son HM King Abdullah laid the foundation for the newly established cultural center. The center was officially inaugurated in December 2016 by His Majesty the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The center took it one step further by becoming a regional center of innovation, creativity, arts, culture, and science in the region. 

“In line with Vision 2030, our mission is to continue to nurture and promote local talent in Saudi Arabia and beyond as well as offer enriching experiences to our visitors through our components and dynamic and engaging activities thus contributing to creating a sustainable and creative knowledge economy for Saudi Arabia and its people,” said Ashraf Fagih, the Head of the Communication and Sponsorship Division at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture. 

Throughout the Center’s various programs, it aims to encourage innovative thinking and prepare a future workforce that can contribute to Saudi Arabia’s growth in ideas and knowledge. Ithra includes programs that nurture science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills in youth that can plant seeds of growth, innovation, and success.

The Knowledge Tower hosts around 2,000 workshops annually in STEM subjects, along with arts and multimedia. The center aims to reach 80,000 students per year, empowering Saudi youth to embrace the skills needed for their future.

Ithra includes a vast library that houses over 220,000 books in Arabic and English, along with 500,000 books in the digital archives. The library, spanning four floors, includes a children and multimedia floor, social floor, general knowledge, and research floor.

Ithra is more than a cultural center because it caters to the future workforce of Saudi Arabia as well, with its own Idea Lab. Idea Lab is designed for entrepreneurs, innovators, and dreamers to implement their skills and to learn more about innovation. The lab provides aspiring entrepreneurs resources such as hosting workshops, guidance, mentorship, to support Saudi citizens who have a solution to a problem. Idea Lab gives them the support and encouragement they need to further develop their idea or product.

The center also includes a cinema that supports local Saudi talent by showcasing films made by up-and-coming Saudi directors and filmmakers, as well as talent across the region. The types of films that are shown include documentaries, short films, as well as children's animations.

“Our mission is to act as a cultural and creative hub which aims to empower human development and a talent showcase for the Kingdom,” said Ashraf. The main vision of Ithra is to contribute to the cultural scene by making arts and culture more accessible to Saudi citizens. It aims to educate, inspire, teach, provoke, and enrich the citizens who visit. 

The uniqueness of Ithra as a cultural center is that it holds a variety of functions under one umbrella. “We are a cultural catalyst intersecting many worlds in one, where the arts, science, literature, design, and innovation meet to inspire the minds and nurture the passion for knowledge, creativity, and cross-cultural engagement of every visitor passing through our doors,” said Ashraf. 

As a physical structure, Ithra has left its mark on the Saudi Arabian landscape. Driving through Dhahran, it is clearly visible as a modern architectural accomplishment, expressing time and unity through its design. The design of Ithra is inspired by the shapes of oil-bearing rock formations, which are the source of the Kingdom’s energy wealth. The shape of the building, containing different sized rocks, represents the diversity while leaning on each other to represent solidarity, and the merging of different ideas to symbolize the diverse programs within Ithra. 

Saudi Aramco chose to build the center near the Prosperity Well, the Kingdom’s first commercial oil well, signaling to grow an even greater source of wealth: creativity, innovation, and transformation. Ithra was also selected as one of TIME’s top 100 Places to visit, amongst other cultural centers around the world. 

A version of this article was featured in Khaleejesque’s Tenth Anniversary, March 2019 issue.

Words: Ghadeer Alaradi
Images: Ithra

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