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Tom Barrack, American private equity investor and chairman of Colony Capital, issued an apology after saying the U.S. had committed "equal or worse" atrocities than the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Speaking to an audience while at the Milken Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi this week, Barrack, who has spent some four decades doing business in Saudi Arabia, refuted criticism of the kingdom for its role in the murder of the Saudi journalist, which Riyadh has blamed on "rogue" government operatives.
Asked at the CNN-hosted panel about the damage done to Saudi Arabia's international reputation, Barrack replied, "whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal, or worse, to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia."
The real estate investor, a close friend of President Donald Trump, said that the "problem" with the killing of Khashoggi was "the same problem with the West misunderstanding the East."
Critics took to Twitter to express their alarm over the chairman's statements. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Chatham House fellow and expert on the Gulf region at Texas's Rice University, called the comments "jaw-dropping."
Barrack issued an apology on Wednesday, calling the Khashoggi killing "atrocious and inexcusable."
"I apologize for not making this clear in my comments earlier this week," he said in a statement, immediately adding, "I feel strongly that the bad acts of a few should not be interpreted as the failure of an entire sovereign kingdom."
He asserted that "rule of law and monarchies across the Middle East are confusing to the West" and that "support for change and rule of law is essential as the agony of great change take place."
In response to anger over his comments about American atrocities, he wrote, "I love American and am myself a product of American freedom … I have always believed and continue to believe that America is the greatest country in the world."
Barrack, who also served as a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Middle East real estate. Colony Capital manages $44 billion worth of assets worldwide, according to its website.
During an event where numerous investors dismissed concerns about investing in the kingdom, Barrack's full-throated defense of the Saudis on Tuesday was particularly head-turning.
"The atrocities in any autocratic country are dictated by the rule of law," he told the audience at Abu Dhabi's St. Regis hotel. "So for us to dictate what we think is the moral code there, when we have a young man and regime that is trying to push themselves in to 2030, I think is a mistake."
"The West is confused, it doesn't understand the rule of law in the kingdom, it doesn't understand what succession in the kingdom is, it doesn't understand how there can be a dilemma with a population that has 60 percent of people under the age of 20."
He added that "the corrupt hand of the West has been the primary instigator in the kingdom, and in the resource curse across the region forever."
Barrack went on to laud the leadership in the Saudi kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, saying that "bold action is required for bold places."
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and former Saudi government advisor, was known for his criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was killed and his body dismembered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 of last year. The CIA has reportedly concluded the country's crown prince played a leading role in the murder, something the Saudis vehemently deny.
Numerous investigations remain ongoing, but the Trump administration this week ignored a congressional deadline to produce a report determining whether the crown prince was behind the killing. Several lawmakers, including Republicans, expressed anger, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) saying the White House's refusal to comply "violates the law."
U.S. lawmakers have passed overwhelmingly bipartisan resolutions to hold the crown prince responsible and penalize the kingdom.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week rejected accusations the administration was "covering up for a murder," insisting that the U.S. was seeking "additional information" on the case. The Trump administration last year announced sanctions on 17 people allegedly linked to the killing, including officials close to the crown prince.