After building a regional profile through its stunning library, art exhibitions, musical performances and film festivals, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, more commonly known as Ithra, aims to make its mark on the world stage.
The cultural district, situated in Dhahran in the Eastern Province, made its debut appearance at the world's biggest publishing gathering, the Frankfurt Book Fair, which ended on Sunday, as part of its outreach to international cultural organisations in attendance.
Ithra also organised a panel discussion on "The Status of Arabic Literature in the World", featuring Saudi novelist Yousef Al Mohaimeed.
Speaking to The National from the book fair, Fatmah Al-Rashid, head of strategy and partnership at Ithra, says the team wants to shed light on the cultural district and its various features.
“We want to tell our story. And that's of a centre in Saudi Arabia that is trying to continue nurturing culture at home and globally," she says.
"It is important to have those conversations with our peers from different countries in order to identify opportunities for collaboration.”
That also means clarifying a few misconceptions surrounding the site.
"One of the first questions we always receive is 'Isn't Ithra a library?'" says Al-Rashid. "I would explain that it is a multicomponent cultural centre that does include a library."
Built by Saudi Aramco and opened in 2017, Ithra is a $400 million complex featuring an arts and children's museum, library, theatre, cinema and exhibition halls.
In addition to being home to an expansive programme of events, the launch of Ithra also placed Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province on the global culture map.
In the past five years, the site has hosted performances by renowned music companies such as Russia's Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and La Scala from Italy. High-profile exhibitions, featuring the works of Norwegian expressionist artist Edvard Munch and Leonardo Da Vinci, have been held there, in addition to an Islamic arts exhibition co-produced with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
At the heart of the complex is the aforementioned Ithra Library, home to more than 270,000 physical and digital titles and spanning four floors.
Visitors to the Ithra’s stand at the book fair were able to tour the library through virtual-reality headsets.
"Even if we look at the library, we want to convey the message that as well as being a place for reading and borrowing books, it is also an institute that produces programmes and events to enable content creation,” Al-Rashid says.
“We are using the library to develop many different skills such as science and technology as well."
With such a dynamic offering, Al-Rashid and her team intend to attend more creative industry gatherings around the world.
“We aim to have a presence in many of these places to showcase our different platforms,” she says.
“So in literary events we will come as Ithra Library, while in a film festival it will be Ithra Production, and if it's art, it will be Ithra Museum.”
Despite the various gatherings, Al-Rashid and her team aim to tell a bigger story.
"By default we are communicating what Saudi Arabia is about, where we are now and where we are heading," she says.
"There is a lot of interest to learn more about Saudi Arabia and our role is to provide that content, build bridges, exchange knowledge and ultimately be part of the global cultural conversation."