“Whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal or worse to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia,” Barrack told the crowd at the Milken Institute’s MENA Summit, according to audio provided by Gulf News reporter Ed Clowes.
“The atrocities in any autocratic country are dictated by the rule of law,” Barrack continued. “So, for us to dictate what we think is the moral code there — when we have a young man [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] and a regime that’s trying to push themselves into 2030 — I think is a mistake.”
In a statement Wednesday, Barrack called the murder of Khashoggi “atrocious” and “inexcusable” and apologized for “not making this clear in my comments earlier this week.”
But he appeared to suggest responsibility for the killing should not rest on Saudi leadership.
“I feel strongly that the bad acts of a few should not be interpreted as the failure of an entire sovereign kingdom,” Barrack said, maintaining that “rule of law and monarchies across the Middle East are confusing to the West.”
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist and prominent critic of Mohammed’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, Turkish and Saudi prosecutors say.
In November, the CIA concluded Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi officials reject that assertion and say the agents who killed Khashoggi were acting against orders.
The issue has led to a rift between Trump and congressional Republicans, some of whom have joined Democrats in accusing the Trump administration of misleading the country and obscuring the truth of Mohammed’s alleged involvement.
Barrack, the executive chairman of real estate firm Colony Capital, has been a friend of Trump’s for more than three decades.
He was also a top fundraiser during Trump’s 2016 campaign and helped raise more than $100 million as chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee. Federal prosecutors in New York are currently investigating activities related to the inaugural committee.
In the 1970s, Barrack worked in Saudi Arabia, where he befriended sons of the Saudi king; he later went on to serve as their U.S. representative, as The Post has reported.
At Tuesday’s event, Barrack discussed his views on Saudi Arabia at length in response to a question from moderator Becky Anderson of CNN, according to the audio of the panel.
Asked for his view on the “reputational damage” done to Saudi Arabia by the Khashoggi killing, Barrack began his response with, “As long as you don’t make me a guest at the Ritz” — an apparent reference to the hotel in Riyadh that has doubled as a luxury detention center for officials, business executives and princes.
He suggested “what’s happened with the Khashoggi incident” is the result of a long-standing fundamental misunderstanding between the Middle East and the West.
“The West is confused at the rule of law — doesn’t understand what the rule of law is in the kingdom; doesn’t understand what succession in the kingdom is; doesn’t understand, how can there be a dilemma with 27 million people in the population, of which 60 percent are under the age of 20?” Barrack said.
The “corrupt hand of the West,” he added, has been the “primary instigator in the kingdom” for decades.
“I have the good fortune of having the DNA of an Arab, of Lebanese, and the gift of freedom of an American,” said Barrack, whose grandfather emigrated to the United States from a city that was formerly in Syria and today is part of Lebanon. “But, we’ve done a bad job as Arabs at communicating who we really are, especially to the West.”
In his apology Wednesday, Barrack said he was proud of being American but argued the United States had made some mistakes in the region, without offering further details.
“I love America and am myself a product of American freedom, American leadership and the American Dream,” he said. “I have always believed and continue to believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world, but our history and our policies in the Middle East have been confusing at times.”
Philip Bump and Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.