After 20 years of isolation, Libya has become the new “destination of choice” for oil companies trying to find new reserves. “It’s a race for our black gold,” president of the National Oil Company Shukri Ghanem said. “We are organising it like the Olympic Games and may the best one win.”

With each subsequent round of concessions, companies from all over the world have been undercutting each other’s bids to the barest limits of profitability.

With the end of UN sanctions in December 2003, oil exploration has picked up from its long hiatus at a frenetic pace. Opec member Libya is Africa’s second largest oil producer with 1.6 million barrels of oil per day (bpd). Its reserves are estimated at 42 billion barrels of high quality crude which could rise to Kuwait-like levels of 100 billion with new explorations.

“Libya is one of those rare countries that has huge exploration zones of practically virgin territory, but some companies are rushing into them on terms that are only barely economically feasible,” notes Philippe Malzac, head of French oil company Total in Libya.

“In two years, more than 40 companies from the entire world will have received permits for five years of exploration, extendable to another 20-25 years exploitation in case of a discovery says Shukri Ghanem. Companies from the United States, Britain, Italy, France Russia, China, Taiwan, India, Algeria, Indonesia, Spain and Canada are all there

However, Gaddafi warned in a speech last week that “You must watch out for colonial forces which spy on us and aim to steal our riches …The colonialist should be aware that he will not realise his aims in Libya.”