U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis began his five-day tour of the Middle East on Tuesday with a stop in Saudi Arabia, where he is meeting with King Salman and other senior members of the kingdom's political and military leadership. Joining Mattis on the trip is Dina Powell, the recently-appointed deputy national security adviser, who is emerging as an influential voice in the Trump administration on the Middle East.
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Powell was photographed walking off the plane together with Mattis in Saudi Arabia. She will also join the secretary of defense for the rest of the trip, which will include stops in Egypt (the country where Powell was born), Israel, Qatar and Djibouti.
While a number of former White House and Pentagon officials from the outgoing Obama administration noted that it was "highly unusual" for a White House staffer to join a cabinet member on a trip overseas, others said it was good to see Powell join Mattis. "She is pretty high ranking for such a trip but this definitely happens," said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and State Department official. "And it's a good thing. You want the team getting on the same page on this type of thing."
Powell's presence at Mattis' side comes after she played an important role in President Trump's meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the White House last month. Pictures that came out of that meeting showed her sitting close to the President and noticeably being the only woman in the room during the discussion between the two leaders and their top aides. She also took part in the discussions Trump held two weeks ago with Egyptian President Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah at the White House.
The decision to send Powell to the Middle East together with Mattis signals that Powell will continue to be a leading figure when it comes to the administration's policies in the region. Under the Bush administration, Powell served in the State Department and was a prominent spokesperson for the administration in the Arab world, using her proficiency in Arabic to explain and defended U.S. policies in the Arab media and in front of both political leaders and civil society.
Trump's National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, appointed Powell to be his deputy in March, after she already served as a senior economic adviser to the President. Powell is considered close to Trump's daughter Ivanka and to her husband, Jared Kushner. Before joining the administration, she was held a senior position at the international bank Goldman Sachs.