The news from Libya’s National Oil Corp-oration that a merger with an international oil major could take place within the next five-10 years marks a curious change in thinking for one of the region’s most attractive oil and gas territories.

Since Tripoli abandoned its programme to develop weapons of mass destruction nearly five years ago, international investment has flourished, particularly in the energy sector. But over that time, Tripoli has tried to restrict the influence of oil majors.

It has been a successful strategy. From just 1.3 million barrels a day (b/d) in 2003, when UN sanctions were lifted, Tripoli has succeeded in raising crude output to almost 2 million b/d. It hopes to hit 3 million b/d by 2013.

Tripoli’s oil reserves may be far larger than the official figure of 41.5 billion barrels. So it is little wonder that international oil companies (IOCs) are beating a path to its door.

At the head of the queue is Italy’s Eni, which extended its oil and gas concessions by 25 years in October and agreed to invest more than $14bn in the country over the next decade.

While national oil companies have historically depended on the capital and technological expertise of Western energy majors, most view the balance of power as firmly in favour of state-run firms. In Libya’s case, that was confirmed when it managed to secure a far greater share of future profits when it renegotiated its contracts with oil majors in June.

The prospect of a merger between NOC and a private sector firm shows that each side still has something to offer the other, but persuading others in Libya of the wisdom of a deal will be hard.

NOC chairman Shokri Ghanem must know that any merger would struggle to attract political support, and would prompt concerns that Libya was giving away too much influence over its most important strategic asset.