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Ithra study finds positive cultural participation in KSA and wider MENA region despite systemic challenges

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), a leading cultural think tank in the region, is releasing a comprehensive study mapping the cultural and creative landscape in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East and North Africa.

The Center commissioned three reports to better understand the evolution of the cultural and creative industry in the Saudi, regional and global context. The research takes the pulse of the public on their creative and cultural experiences at a time when the sector is undergoing a radical transformation and is slowly recovering from the effects of COVID-19. It consolidates Saudi and global experts’ perspectives, highlighting key insights on the production, consumption and role of government and other enablers of the sector.

This launch comes following a nearly two-year research journey where Ithra, the Economist Intelligence Unit and local partners conducted multiple surveys across 10 MENA cities, with over 9,000 survey respondents, and led interviews with a broad set of cultural and creative experts from around the world. The research also reviewed a wide range of reports to shed light on the issues that matter most in the cultural and creative sector.

Fatmah Alrashid, Head of Strategy and Partnerships at Ithra, said that Ithra hopes for the research to be “a resource for policymakers as well as the public, challenging perceptions and inspiring dialogue on the state of an industry.”

She stressed the importance of activating cultural participation in the region by focusing on “making cultural participation available to all” in terms of quality and economy, providing the necessary platforms, and contributing to the implementation of initiatives that will make culture part of the public education programs and curriculum.

The MENA region’s diversity is reflected in the divergent paths of its cultural and creative industries.

The cultural landscape is evolving differently across the MENA region. The Gulf states are adopting a top-down approach to cultural development by investing public funds in new institutions, frameworks, infrastructure and spaces to enable the creative industry to thrive. In contrast, the Levant and North African Arab countries are pursuing a bottom-up approach, driven by grassroot organizations, private initiatives, a vibrant cultural scene and social diversity. Both are working in different ways. One commonality across the region is that cultural participation is on the rise everywhere, driven by an enhanced cultural awareness and a motivation to learn – signaling the richness of cultural offerings available to the public. Furthermore, the expansion of cultural offerings via digital platforms and the proliferation of digital technology among consumers is also boosting cultural participation and awareness.

The research by Ithra uncovers several theme-specific trends related to cultural demand and consumer preferences across the MENA region, with History and Heritage emerging as the most popular theme, followed by Film and Television.

Despite the overarching positive cultural participation across the region, the research points to accessibility as a key barrier to cultural engagement. Additional challenges hindering cultural engagement include:

  • Limited public expenditure and support in some countries
  • Economic and political instability of some countries
  • Limited presence of culture in the mainstream education system
  • Limited information and awareness
  • Relative scarcity of family-oriented activities and facilities, with a special need for children-specific content.

Given the above barriers to cultural engagement and general Cultural Creative Industry trends across the MENA region, the study recommends several directions and policy measures to accelerate cultural participation, including:

  • Policymakers and service providers need to focus on making cultural participation more inclusive by addressing information barriers and supporting the participation of low-income groups
  • Governments and communities may implement initiatives to promote life-long cultural learning (e.g., through greater emphasis on education curriculum)
  • Cultural institutions in MENA can learn from each other’s distinct strengths to help boost participation across the region


Further details on each of the reports is summarized below:


“Culture in the 21st Century”

Ithra collaborated with The Economist Intelligence Unit to develop the “Culture in the 21st century” report, which examines the cultural offering and consumption in the MENA region to present a detailed snapshot of the current state of the industry. The exhaustive study includes responses from more than 5,000 respondents across 10 MENA cities (Beirut, Cairo, Dammam, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait City, Manama, Muscat, Riyadh and Sharjah), as well as interviews with more than 20 regional experts from different fields including policymaking, academia, artists and curators. The report seeks to drive conversation on how to boost cultural engagement in MENA, with the ultimate objective of contributing to the promotion of culture and cultural exchange within the region. It highlights key barriers to cultural engagement, helping stakeholders from policymakers to service providers expand their understanding of how culture is consumed and why it is consumed the way it is.

“Charting the transformation of the Saudi cultural and creative industry”

In collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group, the “Charting the transformation of the Saudi cultural and creative industry” report introduces a cultural and creative industries (CCI) index for Saudi Arabia and assesses the CCI landscape across different dimensions and sub-sectors. It focuses on success factors, growth potential and areas for development based on interviews with leading global stakeholders. The aim of the KSA CCI Index score is not to be compared against other countries, but rather to establish a baseline and track the future progress of Saudi Arabia. The score for KSA reflects the high potential of the industry where the tangible impact of recent transformational efforts launched by the government will take a few more years to be witnessed.

“How COVID-19 is impacting the cultural and creative industry”

The COVID-19 pandemic had a large impact on the cultural and creative industry globally. Therefore, Ithra has also developed a special report on the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the cultural industries, providing a snapshot of the sentiments and expectations of Saudi consumers alongside key considerations for CCI stakeholders. It highlights the resilience of the nascent Saudi CCI ecosystem in the face of the pandemic, the lasting impact COVID-19 made on consumer consumption patterns, and an acceleration in the digitization of cultural offerings.