“Everybody laughs about the glowing orb,” says HR McMaster, recalling a memorable image of Donald Trump’s trip to Riyadh in 2017. The photo in question shows the president, the First Lady, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, hands close together touching a frosted glass globe, lit eerily from within.
But the trip was a diplomatic success, says the former army general, who was then US national security adviser. He gives much of the credit to his then-deputy Dina Powell: “It was her relationships, particularly across the Middle East, that proved invaluable.”
“It is easy to be cynical about it because of the Khashoggi murder and MBS’s approach to the region since,” says Mr McMaster, referring to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “[but] there were concrete outcomes in connection with commercial agreements and standing up on terrorist finance.”
And it was Ms Powell’s ability to connect and co-ordinate important people which brought it together, he says.
This is a theme that comes up whenever anyone is asked about Ms Powell. No one has ever seen a networker like her — tireless, totally committed and linked to everyone who matters. The glowing orb, then, is an fitting image: powerful people, connection made.
Today Ms Powell is back at Goldman Sachs, where she worked for nearly a decade before her year-long stint with the Trump administration. And her ambassadorial skills are once again on display. She was, the Financial Times reported this week, instrumental to the diplomatic effort that has put Goldman in contention for a slice of what could be the biggest deal in decades — the initial public offering of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, Aramco.
“She is a powerful operator,” one person close to the deal summed up.
Ms Powell, 46, is the daughter of an Egyptian army officer; her family emigrated to the US when she was four. She is the mother of two children with her first husband, PR executive Richard Powell.
At the University of Texas she paid her way by working at the state Senate. Her interest in politics led to her first White House job, in the administration of George W Bush. Not yet 30, she served as assistant to the president for personnel, before switching to a job as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, tells the FT that “her knowledge and sensitivity, particularly in — but not limited to — the Middle East was invaluable” to setting foreign policy.
Sensitivity will have been useful when Ms Powell joined Goldman for the first time, in 2007. Initially she led the bank’s impact investing and environmental markets groups. Goldman, however, emerged from the crisis with its reputation sorely in need of repair, having paid a $550m fine to the US authorities in 2010 to settle charges that it had misled investors in subprime mortgage products.
Ms Powell was put in charge of two initiatives at the forefront of Goldman’s “charm offensive”. The 10,000 Women and 10,000 Small Businesses schemes used the bank’s resources to provide women and entrepreneurs with education, mentoring, networking and access to capital. The programmes remain cornerstones of Goldman’s charity efforts.
The jobs brought her into contact with people across the charitable world, in particular charities interested in the economic status of women. Her work impressed Tina Brown, the journalist who organises the Women in the World events. In charity work, “a lot of people are more interested in networking than the product”, Ms Brown says. Not so Ms Powell: “She made [10,000 Women] the opposite of fluff.”
This year, Ms Powell made a powerful personal connection, marrying David McCormick, the co-chief executive of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, with $160bn under management.
At Goldman, not everyone is enamoured. Some colleagues suggest her knowledge of the business of banking is thin, for a member of Goldman’s powerful management committee. One former co-worker says bluntly that her sole skill is gaining the trust of powerful people.
Whether this is the voice of jealousy, given her ascent at notoriously cut-throat Goldman, is difficult to know. Gregg Lemkau, head of investment banking at Goldman, calls Ms Powell “one of the most effective bankers we have”. If she continues to be instrumental to closing the Aramco deal and others like it, it will be difficult to question her value to the company.
Get alerts on Dina Powell when a new story is published