International oil companies (IOCs) in Libya face increasing uncertainty after it was revealed that the General People’s Congress will discuss claiming their assets when it convenes on 1 February.

“One of the items [on the agenda] is national oil companies replacing foreign companies. If approved by Congress, it will be passed,” Omar el-Badri, former Opec secretary general, now an oil and political analyst in Libya, tells MEED.

The detailed agenda for the debate has not been published and El-Badri says it is not clear how, or to what extent, Tripoli is seeking to take over the assets.

Speculation has been mounting in recent weeks that Tripoli is considering nationalising its oil infrastructure, after a recent speech by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

In a talk to students at George-town University in Washington DC on 21 January, Gaddafi said the country was discussing the potential for nationalising its oil assets.

Gaddafi cited the fall in oil prices as one reason for the debate in congress, but other sources in the country say tribal groups are putting pressure on the government to take greater control over national resources.

El-Badri also cites the conflict in Gaza as a factor behind the opposition to foreign companies.

IOCs operating in Libya include Italy’s Eni, the UK/Dutch Shell Group, the UK’s BP, France’s Total, Austria’s OMV and Verenex Energy of Canada.

Sources at some of the IOCs attribute talk of nationalisation to political posturing and say it is impossible to predict whether any action will be taken.

One source says February and March are often key months in the Libyan political calendar, given that the General People’s Congress has its annual meeting at that time.

Others say the uncertainty hanging over the sector in the run-up to the debate is nothing new.

“It is always difficult in Libya to know what is happening,” says one IOC source.

Dana Moss, a research fellow at the US’ Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Gaddafi’s comments and the congressional discussions can be seen as a way of appeasing political factions and testing support.

“Part of how Gaddafi uses the formal [political] system is to test things out and see how popular they are,” she says. “It depends on how important the [issues are]. It is a good way of seeing the level of support or opposition.”

Moss says full-scale nationalisation of companies or assets is still unlikely. “I doubt it very much but it is wise never to say never,” she says, adding that the discussion “is more a way of letting off steam”.

Moss says the issue should be seen within the wider context of the inauguration of US President Barack Obama, which took place the day before Gaddafi’s speech.

“It could be a way of Libya trying to get the attention of the Obama administration,” she says.