Alistair Dawber: Oil-fuelled wealth spreads far beyond Libya

The Libyan Investment Authority's website is, at best, amateurish. Following the adverts that frame the site, you could learn trade foreign currencies in minutes, or guarantee 700 per cent returns just by handing over your cash.

It has a staggering amount of cash, at least $70bn (£43bn), at its disposal. When Tony Blair helped bring Libya in from the diplomatic cold in 2005, it enabled companies like BP to secure multi-billion pound contracts. BP, which returned to Libya after a 30-year hiatus in 2007, last week suspended work on a $900m licence to hunt for oil in the country.

It is unclear if the LIA activities will be curtailed by yesterday's EU sanctions, which froze the assets of a number of regime members in Tripoli. For the ban to apply to the LIA, it would have to be proven that it exists to personally benefit Gaddafi and his acolytes. The freeze covers not only assets held in the names of Gaddafi and his children but assets controlled by them. "The financial sector ... should bear in mind that Muammar Gaddafi and his family have considerable control over the Libyan state and its enterprises," the Treasury said.

Libya's economy, like so many in the region, is dominated by oil. The Opec member sits on the ninth-largest certified oil reserves in the world, with 41.5 billion barrels, which could last at least another 60 years. This income allowed Gaddafi to pump huge sums into Western companies after international sanctions were lifted.

The LIA has invested heavily in Europe over the past five years. It is the largest individual shareholder (when added to other state-backed Libyan investments) in UniCredit, the Italian bank, with a 7.6 per cent stake. UniCredit has seen its shares slide over the past week. It is in Italy, Libya's former colonial master, where the LIA has put most of its money. It has an equity stake of about 2 per cent in Fiat, which has revived in the past decade after years of decline. The LIA is a major player in the Italian defence industry, with a 2 per cent stake in the aerospace giant, Finmeccanica.

The LIA has spent almost as much money in Britain in recent years. It has assets in some of Britain's biggest companies and bought a small stake in Royal Bank of Scotland after its 2008 taxpayer rescue. If RBS shares ever recover, the LIA could potentially make huge returns, and have a say about when the state's holding is sold.

The LIA also has a stake in Pearson, the publishing giant that owns the Financial Times. Unveiling a 54 per cent rise in annual profits, its chief executive, Dame Marjorie Scardino, said: "It's abhorrent to us, what is happening in Libya, and we have made it pretty clear we are uncomfortable with the [LIA] holding, but we work in a public market company and we don't choose our shareholders."

The LIA has avoided some potential pitfalls – including approaches from both Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford to invest in their sham schemes.

Last week, Marco Tronchetti Provera, chairman of Pirelli, resigned as an LIA adviser because of the political crisis. But the amount of money invested in some of Europe's biggest companies makes unpicking Libya's financial investments almost as difficult as solving the crisis.

Assets around the world

Italy

2% of Finmeccanica (an Italian aerospace company)

7% of UniCredit (making Libya the largest single shareholder)

2% of the Italian car manufacturer Fiat, above right

7.5% of the arguably the country's best-known football club, Juventus, above

UK

0.2% of RBS, now 84%-owned by the Treasury

3% of Pearson, publishers of the Financial Times

£155m Portman House – 146,550 square feet of retail property on Oxford Street, above

£120m 14 Cornhill, opposite Bank of England

Others

1% of Rusal, Oleg Deripaska's aluminium firm, above

24% of Circle Oil, with assets across Africa and Middle East

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