The first event to feature all 12 of Europe's Ryder Cup heroes since their triumph in Chicago in September saw Donald post a 65 to lead by one from world number one Rory McIlroy, Scot Marc Warren and Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
McIlroy, uncatchable at the top of the European Tour's money list, was only one under at the turn, then had five birdies in seven holes, but drove in the water on the par five last and had to settle for par there. He said: "I think I drove the ball beautifully with the exception of 18."
Donald moved back up to second in the rankings ahead of Tiger Woods by taking the Dunlop Phoenix title at the weekend and is seeking to match McIlroy's four wins this year. He birdied the fifth, seventh and eighth to turn in 33, started for home with two more, made a 15-footer at the short 13th and only just missed an eagle attempt at the 626-yard 14th.
Warren is making his first appearance at the event since it moved to the Middle East in 2009 and his day began with a "mad rush" to find his waterproofs after stepping outside his hotel and seeing heavy rain - 20mms of it in two hours - but it soon cleared up and he had perfect conditions for his round.
"There was no wind to speak of and the greens were pure. I felt as if I hit a lot of good golf," the former World Cup winner said.
His last victory was in 2007 and he blew a great chance at his home Scottish Open in July, dropping four shots in the last four holes to lose by one just like Adam Scott at The Open the following week.
The tournament is limited to the top 60 money winners on the circuit this year, but only 56 teed off. Thomas Bjorn and Retief Goosen were out injured, Ross Fisher is preparing for next week's PGA Tour qualifying school in California and Ireland's Shane Lowry withdrew after going down with a virus that even put him on a drip in hospital for a while.
Sergio Garcia, returning after eye surgery to correct an astigmatism following the Ryder Cup, managed only a 73 and Ian Poulter was on the same one over mark after mixing four birdies with five bogeys in his first 12 holes.