Exclusive: Norah O’Donnell on how CBS landed Saudi Crown Prince interview

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ahead of the interview with CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell. (CBS News/60Minutes)
Updated 22 September 2018

Exclusive: Norah O’Donnell on how CBS landed Saudi Crown Prince interview

LONDON: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will arrive in the US this week for high-level meetings with President Donald Trump. But before he visits the White House, the Saudi heir will introduce himself to the American public.
On Sunday, the CBS television network will air an interview with the crown prince on its flagship “60 Minutes” current affairs program, and for his first-ever interview with a US broadcaster, no subject was off limits.
“There were no time restrictions and no preconditions,” Norah O’Donnell, the CBS anchorwoman who interviewed the crown prince in Riyadh, told Arab News.
“It seemed to me that there was a desire to show the American public what he believes, to show that Saudi Arabia is changing. The crown prince wants the US audience to understand him.”
The interview is wide-ranging and remarkably candid, with topics including the war in Yemen and the anti-corruption investigation launched last year at the prince’s behest, which resulted in high-ranking businessmen and officials being detained.

“For the first time, the crown prince tells in his own words what happened at the Ritz-Carlton. He speaks forcefully about Iran and about the role of women in Saudi society. He also talks about how Islam has been misinterpreted by extremists, whether it has to do with women’s rights or education or larger cultural traditions,” said O’Donnell.

“I think some of that may be newsworthy,” she said.
Bringing the interview to fruition took three years of negotiations. O’Donnell said that in April 2015 she started hearing that King Salman, who had just assumed the Saudi throne, was someone to watch, and she persuaded “60 Minutes” that gaining an interview with the Saudi leadership was an idea worth pursuing.
She first met Prince Mohammed bin Salman — then still deputy crown prince — at the Saudi ambassador’s residence in Washington in June 2016.
“It was his first visit to Washington. I asked about Vision 2030 and made my pitch for an interview to him in person. He was familiar with ‘60 Minutes’ and we explained that the interview would not just involve meeting in a hotel for 20 minutes. We wanted to come to Riyadh and have unprecedented access to the royal palace. We wanted to know how he spends his weekends and to show him to people.”
The meetings and conversations continued. “We had confidence that we were going to get the interview but no assurance,” said O’Donnell.
The anchorwoman and her production team were finally given the green light a month ago. They also got everything else they wanted: The Saudis neither requested questions in advance nor vetoed any topic of discussion.
“Their attitude was, ‘We have nothing to hide,’” said O’Donnell. “It was extraordinary.”

The formal 90-minute interview was conducted two weeks ago in the royal compound in Diriyah, on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh, shortly before the crown prince left for his visit to Britain.
He chose to speak in Arabic, with simultaneous translation for the American crew.
“Most of the ministers in Saudi Arabia have been educated in the US or England, and there are currently 150,000 Saudis studying in the US, but one of the surprising things about the crown prince is that he is entirely Saudi-educated,” said O’Donnell. “He explained that his father, King Salman, wanted all of them (his children) to attend universities in Saudi Arabia because your time as a student is really formative. I thought that was really interesting.
“In the interview, you see that the crown prince does speak English when we’re meeting in his office, when it’s more casual. But when talking about business and policy, where you want to be very precise, it’s not that surprising that he would want to speak in Arabic.”
And precision was certainly called for in the face of tough questioning on Yemen and Iran. The crown prince was clear that as soon as Iran acquired nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would follow suit.
“He did not flinch from any questions,” she said.
The encounter was also a first for O’Donnell. The seasoned journalist has covered American politics for 20 years through the administrations of three presidents. Her father served in the First Gulf War and she has long been fascinated by the Middle East. Yet she had never been to Saudi Arabia. What preconceptions did she — and by extension, the American people — have about the country?
“I wouldn’t want to speak for 300 million Americans, but for most, Saudi Arabia is a world away. The general perception of Saudi Arabia is oil and wealth. But Saudi Arabia is also America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, and President Trump chose the country for his first foreign trip as president. Saudi Arabia matters.”
She also met Saudi women at Princess Nora University in Riyadh.
“The women I spoke to told me that the two biggest issues for them were driving and child care. One woman said lifting the driving ban meant that she would be able to get to work on time. She is about to become a surgeon.

“But in lifting the ban, the Saudis are not just saying, ‘OK, you can all go out and get driving licenses now.’ They’re not doing that. Instead, they have set up driving schools in universities and 70,000 women have signed up for those classes. They teach them about safety. And they even have day care.
“It was extraordinary to me because any country can just say, ‘You have these rights,’ but in Saudi Arabia they are actually providing schools to teach women about safety. For a country that has been well behind the curve, they at least appear to be trying to get it right.”
O’Donnell says she also saw how the power of the religious police has been curbed — again by royal decree.
“We did have an encounter with them when they shouted at one of our producers and that was scary. But we also knew that they could not do any more than that.”
Though no dress restrictions were imposed, O’Donnell chose to wear an abaya in public while in Riyadh.
“It felt more comfortable because everyone else was wearing abayas. After all, when the crown prince met Mark Zuckerberg during that trip in 2016, he wore a blazer and jeans.”
And what were her impressions of the young man who is transforming his country?
“He appears quite mature beyond his years, extremely confident, thoughtful and incredibly forthright in his answers. He is ambitious for his country. The fact that he has been elevated within the family at such a young age shows he enjoys the trust of his father, whom he briefs after every meeting.
“He wants to show that Saudi Arabia is changing. There is a desire to show what he believes and what his vision is. We were all fascinated by this young man who is in such a hurry to enact change. The pace of that change is remarkable. He has also been called reckless and bold, and there is no disputing that he has enormous power — unchecked power. But he is a man who believes in openness, who needs to communicate. He doesn’t want to be misunderstood.”


Arabic anime voice actors prepare for new show at Riyadh expo

Updated 17 November 2019

Arabic anime voice actors prepare for new show at Riyadh expo

  • Waheed Jalal's voice acting as “Treasure Island” antagonist John Silver has captivated generations

RIYADH: Visitors to Riyadh’s first anime expo stopped by the first panel on Saturday unaware that they would be leaving the stage with memories renewed of their favorite voice actors of all time.

Waheed Jalal and Jihad Al-Atrashi will forever live on in the hearts of fans of “Grendizer” and “Treasure Island (Takarajima),” the two shows that introduced the Arab world to anime in the 1970s.

Jalal, whose voice acting as “Treasure Island” antagonist John Silver has captivated generations, expressed how delighted he was to be with the audience.

“I want to thank you and your Kingdom of generosity and culture,” he said.

Al-Atrash, who portrayed Duke Fleed, echoed his sentiments: “You are great people with great values, thank you to the people of the Kingdom that stand next to people of all nations.”

Jalal was touched by the audience’s love and warm welcome, “You guys are the reason we continued this far, without you it wouldn’t have been possible,” he told them.

“We’re persevering to this day because people loved these characters we portrayed so much, our other works pale in comparison,” he added.

Jalal said that the reason “Grendizer” remained with so many people is because of the values and morals depicted in the show, teaching generations to be loyal and loving to their nation and their people.

Artist and creator Ibrahim Al-Lami. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

The voice acting pair talked about the importance of speaking in formal Arabic in these shows. Jalal said it’s because “you’re presenting to the entire Arab world.”

Local dialects would be difficult for others to understand, so we must all aspire to perfect our formal Arabic, added Jalal.

Before concluding the talk, a teaser was played of the first Saudi anime “Makkeen” by artist and creator, Ibrahim Al-Lami, who announced that 60 percent of the work was completed through local efforts.

“We’ll introduce a new work that is by our people, written by our people and voiced by our people,” he said to the audience.

The work will feature characters voiced by Jalal and Al-Atrash, who have become symbolic to the Arab anime world. “I told them, this work wouldn’t be complete without you two,” said Lami on his choice of voice actors. “We want these works to see the light of day. We need to provide the new generations with tales of our own,” added Al-Atrash when asked why he wanted to partake in the anime.