New Saudi performance centre adds to top prince's powers

RIYADH (Reuters) - Hit by falling oil prices, Saudi Arabia has set up a new body that aims to improve the efficiency of government agencies while giving more influence to the powerful young Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The National Centre for Measuring the Performance of Government Agencies, which replaces an earlier oversight department appears to be part of a wider drive by the new King Salman to cut wastage in government.

The world's top oil exporter faces a budget deficit that economists estimate could total US$120 billion (S$166.3 billion) or more this year. This has led the Finance Ministry to close its national accounts a month early to control spending.

The new body was announced on Monday (Oct 19) in a Cabinet statement that also said a new committee had been set up to oversee real estate policy. It added that plans to tax unused land were being sent to the advisory Shura council for review, a sensitive subject in a country with a housing shortage.

After taking power in January, Salman abolished several governing councils that rarely met and replaced them with two supercommittees, one on the economy and another on security. These have become the engines of Riyadh policy making.

The new performance centre will be governed by a council headed by the deputy crown prince and including Economy & Planning Minister Adel Fakieh and former Capital Markets Authority chairman Mohammed Al al-Sheikh.

Prince Mohammed, who is second-in-line to rule, is also Saudi defence minister and head of the supercommittee on the economy. His new role heading the performance body could give him a degree of oversight across all government departments.

The young prince has enjoyed a dizzying accumulation of powers since his father became king and placed him in the line of succession ahead of dozens of cousins.

He is keen to overhaul the kingdom's entire structure of economic and development planning, Saudi insiders say, and has employed Western consulting firms to look at fresh reforms. Last week, the Cabinet agreed to set up a new jobs commission, also under his supercommittee.