Norah O'Donnell's Interview With Saudi Crown Prince Was 2 Years in the Making

Norah and Crown Prince - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of CBS News

Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is a polarizing figure and a big opportunity for O'Donnell.

It is not easy to rise above the social media-fueled cable news din of White House machinations and intrigues. But Norah O’Donnell’s interview with Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia known as MBS, should be considered a journalist coup.

O’Donnell spent years working to book bin Salman; she first put in an official request two years ago and met in person with the crown prince a year and a half ago at the Saudi embassy in Washington. After that it was a matter of reiterating her interest — directly and via contacts close to the Saudi kingdom — while “fending off others who wanted this interview,” she says. 

Bin Salman is second in line to the throne. But he has become something of a polarizing figure in Saudi Arabia; he instituted austerity measures in the face of falling oil prices and then purchased a $550 million yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon. He's become an object of global fascination for his flouting of decades of tradition, meeting with Hollywood stars and Silicon Valley luminaries, including Mark Zuckerberg. Last December, it was reported that he purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for a record $450 million. Portions of O’Donnell’s interview will air Wednesday, March 14 on CBS This Morning, culminating in a lengthy piece on 60 Minutes on March 18, two days before the Saudi leader is scheduled to meet with President Trump.

O’Donnell spent a week in Saudi Arabia reporting the piece, which will examine the social, economic and political changes roiling the country. She talks to bin Salman about a range of issues — “Nothing was off limits,” she says — including the Sunni Muslim kingdom’s relationships with chief rival Iran; the United States (including his thoughts on President Trump); the kingdom’s role in the bloody civil war in Yemen. The crown prince is also the kingdom’s deputy prime minister and its defense minister. She also spoke with him about his anti-corruption crackdown that resulted in hundreds of prominent Saudis detained at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh and the sweeping social reforms he has instituted including allowing women to drive, nullifying the authority of the religious police and rolling back guardianship rules for women. 

“I personally believe that the 21st century is the century of women,” says O’Donnell. "This century is going to be the empowerment of women, not only in the America but worldwide." 

The paradoxes in Saudi Arabia, where about 80 percent of the population is under 40, are numerous; young women have access to social media and education but until last September were not allowed to drive.

“There is this great untapped potential," says O'Donnell. "They’re very connected. Some of the young women I spoke to who were veiled, completely veiled, were Snapchatting with me. I don’t really use Snapchat but I got back on." 

Many women have signed up for free driving lessons; the driving centers provide childcare. O’Donnell spoke to several women who attend or went to Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, which is the largest university for women in the world and includes a medical school and law school.

“They told me, we don’t get to work or school because we’re waiting for the driver,” she recalls. “I teared up; how do you get to the point where you’re brilliant enough to get to medical school and then you can’t even get to class because you’re waiting for the driver to pick you up?

“To leave this cable drumbeat of similar news all day long and to go to a different part of the world and work on a story that causes us to think, it was incredibly personally gratifying.”