Zeinab Badawi was born in the Sudan; her family moved to London when she was 2 years old. She studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University.

After graduating, she worked as a broadcast journalist for Yorkshire TV before obtaining an MA degree in Middle East History and Anthropology from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in 1989.
Initially a reporter with the BBC, she joined Channel Four as the first presenter of ITV Morning News and co-presented Channel 4 news with Jon Snow, 1989-1998. 
She moved to the BBC, initially working for programmes on British politics, and then for World News Today. She has interviewed world personalities and politicians for the BBC's HARDtalk and Global Questions.

Zeinab's many awards, include The British Academy's President's Medal for services to broadcasting and advocacy for female education.

In 2020 she received the Sir Brian Urquhart Award from the United Nations for distinguished service to the UN.

In 2021, Zeinab became president of SOAS. She is a Patron of United Nations Association UK and  has served as Chair of the Royal African Society.
Through  her own  production company Kush Communications she has made  programmes for the BBC including her groundbreaking TV series The History of Africa .