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Ithra: The Cultural Jewel of Saudi Arabia


Ithra, also known as the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, is a cultural center located in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. A unique and innovative institution that offers a wide range of programs and initiatives in the fields of art, culture, and knowledge. Night-to-day the architectural beauty, designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, welcomes families, children and art-enthusiasts of all ages. The Saudi Aramco-built center is an influential landmark and represents the prosperous present and future of the Kingdom.

We spoke with Noura Alzamil, the Division Head of Programs at Ithra, and Robert Frith, the Creative Director at Ithra, about their unique and dynamic cultural institution that promotes creativity, diversity, and knowledge-sharing.

AM: What makes Ithra so different from other cultural centers in the region?
Noura Alzamil: One of the highlights of last year’s Tanween season was the publication of Ithra’s landmark study to gain greater understanding of how cultural and creative industry (CCI) performance is evolving both in Saudi Arabia and regionally. The CCI report found enhanced offerings and increased interaction has led to a growth in cultural participation, which is encouraging. That being said, the study also highlighted a need to ensure greater inclusivity. In the GCC, most cultural centers focus on one activity – it’s a museum or an opera house or library, for instance. Think of the prominent Museum of the Future in Dubai, Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Royal Opera House Muscat or Qatar’s National Museum and Museum of Islamic Art. Concrete in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue takes a multidisciplinary approach, but its largely event based. We have also recently seen a rise in city-wide activations such as in AlUla or Noor Riyadh, which help build an audience for cultural activities.

Kuwait’s Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre follows a model similar to Ithra’s but with a more local, performance-based outlook. Bahrain’s Isa Cultural Centre, meanwhile, combines the cultural with the intellectual but mainly within the literary field. Ithra offers a unique combination of different elements of all these centers. We are a cultural think-tank that prioritizes both talent and sector development, and we take a global outlook in our mission to be the beating heart of the Kingdom’s cultural and creative ecosystem. Ithra is a destination like no other – it is where imagination is powered, ideas are born, knowledge shared and culture celebrated.


AM: What about Ithra’s main target audience?
Noura Alzamil: Ithra offers a carefully curated series of programs throughout the year aimed at different audiences. As an economic enabler we create new opportunities for creatives while preparing the next generation of original thinkers to lead in the creative and cultural industries; as a cultural catalyst we unlock talent through a focus on cross-cultural experiences driven by the development of original content; and as a global gateway we expose Saudi citizens, residents and visitors to world culture while taking Saudi culture to the rest of the world.

We always say Ithra is Saudi at heart and multicultural by nature, and our target audience is program-dependent, ranging from children and students to adults, emerging and established creatives to those with an interest in creativity, and the general public at large. Ithra inspires the heart and enriches the mind, and our goal is to impact as many people as possible.

AM: Describe an ideal day at Ithra…
Noura Alzamil: No two days at Ithra are the same! Ithra’s programming is built around art, knowledge, creativity culture and community, drawing on the passions of our diverse audiences from families to creative professionals and art lovers. For every audience group there is a distinctive journey for them to explore and enjoy. For example, our Children’s Museum or children’s library is designed to encourage curiosity and learning. Whilst creative professional will experience development opportunities through our creativity and innovation festival Tanween. For more than nine months we were showcasing the travelling Hijra exhibition which traces the Prophet’s (PBUH) migration from Mecca to Medina and will be accompanied by a documentary film we’re taking on the international film circuit.

Our cinema saw the release of the Ithra-produced Valley Road, by award-winning Saudi independent filmmaker Khalid Fahad, which premiered at the Red Sea Film Festival. At the end of last year, we hosted a football-themed exhibition in Qatar, From Strike to Stroke featuring 64 NFTs by 32 artists from the competing nations. So, as you can see, Ithra is about inspiring and enriching through experiences that involve exploration, learning, dinning and interacting with local and global cultures.


AM: Choose three words that best describe Ithra…
Noura Alzamil: Culture, knowledge and creativity. Ithra’s goal is to ignite cultural curiosity, stimulate knowledge exploration, and inspire creativity through the power of ideas, imagination and innovation. We support the transformation of Saudi Arabia’s economy with a focus on people and industry, and by championing content creation.

AM: And where did the concept of the Tanween season come from?
Robert Frith: Ithra’s flagship creativity season Tanween was designed to deliver economic and social change by promoting the creative industry. The event offers opportunities for aspiring creatives, professionals and organizations to connect with peers and experts. It also presents a platform where they can develop new skills and learn to apply their creative and innovation talents. Ithra emphasizes talent development as vital to unlocking the potential of the creative and cultural economy in Saudi Arabia, the region and beyond. Tanween bolsters this endeavor through a series of programs highlighting the opportunities a creative career can bring, connecting talent with opportunities and providing resources to support the development of both individuals and the industry at large.

Every year, Tanween takes on a theme delving into an aspect of the creative process where cultural audiences and creative consumers can discover the potential of an artistic career and mindset. The event launched in 2018 with the theme “Disruption: A Creative Response to Change”. In 2019 Tanween explored “Play: A Key Ingredient to Creativity”, while in 2020 the season took on a hybrid physical-virtual model due to the Covid-19 pandemic to examine “The New Next: Creativity to the Future”. The theme for Tanween 2021 was “Tools: Build the Creativity”, while Tanween 2022 highlighted “Collaborate to Create”. This edition focused on a collaboration of cultures, for nature, by technology, and for society.

AM: And what are some milestones the seasons have achieved since the launch of Tanween?
Robert Frith: Since 2018, Tanween has hosted more than 75,000 participants, and welcomed over 200,000 visitors – in person and virtually. Prominent speakers at Tanween’s inaugural event included MIT’s Prof. Carlo Ratti, Philippe Blanchard of Futurous, Lewis Pugh, the UN Environment Patron for Polar Regions, and renowned myth-buster Adam Savage. Football icon Thierry Henry headlined Tanween 2019, which also featured a lavish production of Wizard of Oz, blindfolded football with Soccer Barcelona Youth Academy, science presenter Greg Foot and the world-famous cardboard battle royale Box Wars.

Tanween 2020 explored the influence and direction creativity will have on steering future careers and industries under the theme “The New Next”. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, more than half the program was dedicated to supporting and empowering emerging creatives to gain support, find direction and build their networks. Highlights included sessions by Dr. Sumaya Al Sulaiman, Mahmoud Abdelrahman, Duncan Wardle, Sir Martin Sorrell, Joanna Peña -Bickley, Patrik Schumacher and Alan Yau. Tanween 2021 offered a deep dive into how tools are crucial in crafting our creativity for the future. A key highlight included mass drone swarms that interacted with the audience in one of the largest co-created drone human light paintings ever made. Speakers and guests brought a plethora of expertise across a spectrum of industry as Chris Law examined how to cultivate culture into design, Sougwen Chung explored how to consciously collaborate with machines, and Dr. Kristof Crolla looked at how to build in simplexity. The Khatt Foundation’s Dr. Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès provided insight on Arabic typography resources, while Taekyeom Lee shared his knowledge of tangible type, calligraffiti artist Alif presented a performance with calligraphy and Jeroen van der Most extolled the value of the analog in the digital.

Tanween 2022 presented inspiration and innovation through creativity and collaboration. Highlights included a keynote address by Saudi design advocate Princess Nourah Al-Faisal, a talk by graffiti legend Carlos Mare139 Rodriguez and a conversation between tech insiders Bill Burnett, Stanford design professor, and Dave Evans, Electronic Arts cofounder. The global lineup of speakers included Reebok cofounder Joe Foster, serial brand collaborator designer Rami Afifi, audio astronaut Reeps One, architectural material wizard Marcus Farr, the Academy for Theater and Digitality’s Arne Hendriks and the green urbanista Huda Shaka. The veteran architect of air Alan Parkinson also launched Architects of Air’s Luminarium installation at the event.