Saudi Aramco inaugurates $800 mln cultural center in Dhahran

By Reem Shamseddine

DHAHRAN, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Saudi Aramco opened an $800 million cultural center in Dhahran on Thursday, underlining the wide range of commitments the world's biggest oil company has made as the kingdom tries to transform its economy.

Saudi Arabia's sweeping plans to reduce its dependence on oil revenue involve boosting the private sector but also include proposals for transforming Saudi society.

At the heart of Riyadh's economic overhaul is national oil company Aramco, which is preparing for the world's biggest initial public offering (IPO) and has unveiled plans to build a $5 billion shipbuilding complex in Ras al-Khair as part of an ambitious plan to develop non-oil industries.

On Thursday, Aramco burnished its cultural credentials with a ceremony to mark the inauguration of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a vast steel structure in the eastern desert city of Dhahran that aims to deepen knowledge and creativity among Saudi youth.

The center, known as "Ithra" ("to enrich" in Arabic) is located close to Saudi's "prosperity well" that tapped some of the country's first commercial quantities oil in 1938. It will boast a vast library, museum and multimedia theater.

At a ceremony attended by King Salman, Aramco's CEO Amin Nasser said the center aimed to fulfill Saudi's Vision 2030 economic plan "with new knowledge frontiers."

Vision 2030 wants Saudi women, whose social role is limited by religious strictures, to raise their participation in the workforce from 22 to 30 percent by 2030.

"Approximately 35 to 40 percent of the team here are women, we support them, we want them to be leaders, it's part of women empowerment cited in Vision 2030," said Fuad al-Therman, an Aramco general manager.

"But of course working practices are consistent with core values and a Saudi identity that is facing the future and facing the world," he said.

During the ceremony, the 80-year-old King Salman told a group of young Saudi engineers managing projects around the country: "May God be with you."

"This is a global center and we are looking to lay bridges of culture and knowledge inside and outside the kingdom," Aramco CEO Nasser told reporters on Wednesday. (Reporting by Reem Shamseddine; Editing by Tom Finn and Tom Heneghan)

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