An electric-powered, driver-less pod-car in Masdsar City, United Arab Emirates.
An electric-powered, driver-less pod-car in Masdsar City, United Arab Emirates. - 

Steve Chiotakis: Our Economy 4.0 series looks at ways the economy can better serve more people. That's a big challenge across the Middle East during this time of turmoil there. But can a project that strives to be environmentally sustainable, bring the same kind of longer-term thinking to its finances?

Marketplace's David Brancaccio reports from a model city outside Abu Dhabi.

Computer voice: The doors are closing, please mind the doors.

David Brancaccio: In this new suburb called Masdar City, electric-powered, driver-less pod-cars move people around using painted magnetic stripes. There are 12 of these suppository-shaped pods in service and I suppose that makes this a "pod-cast." But there are no firm plans for more, even after initial talk of bringing in thousands to what was designed as the UAE's citadel of sustainability.

Tour guide: Masdar is a learning experience at the end of the day so...

This is supposed to become the world's first carbon-neutral city, in a country with one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world. With oil prices high, the government here still has plenty of money to build. But in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, one crucial ingredient is drying up: international customers for the real estate.

Saud Masud: The days of, you know, we'll build and they'll come are pretty much over and I think Abu Dhabi has realized that.

Middle East investment and real estate expert Saud Masud is CEO of SM Advisory Group.

Masud: For them it's a question of do we throw good money after bad in a slowdown.

That's Masdar real estate, but the money is still flowing briskly to Masdar's alternative energy projects. Among their ventures: Solar systems that produce energy for hours after sunset.

Frank Wouters is the director of Masdar Power.

Frank Wouters: Even with the crisis there is still demand for power. So we have not really been affected.

Abu Dhabi is under pressure to find a sustainable business model for all of Masdar to go along with its environmentally sustainable aspirations. The oil that buys prosperity and social peace won't flow forever. And the enduring hope is for Masdar City to become a hotbed for figuring out what the post-oil future might be.

In Masdar City, I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

Follow David Brancaccio at @DavidBrancaccio