Donaldson and Rose both had chip-ins from sand traps and six birdies against one bogey Thursday en route to scores of 5-under-par 67.
They are one stroke up on Pablo Larrazabal and Thorbjorn Olesen, who each had one bogey in shooting 4-under 68. Five other players are at 3-under.
The field includes world No. 1 Rory McIlroy and second-ranked Tiger Woods. McIlroy had two double bogeys in a 3-over 75 and is tied for 83rd while Woods countered four bogeys with four birdies for an even-par 72, which is tied for 32nd.
Rose, fifth in the world rankings, opened his round with a bogey but quickly came back with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 2 and 3. He added another at the fifth hole -- sinking a 50-foot putt -- and got to 3-under with a birdie at eight.
Rose chipped in from a greenside bunker at the ninth hole for birdie and had an up-and-down from a sand trap on the 10th hole for another birdie.
Donaldson, playing the second nine at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club first Thursday, started with a birdie at 10 and, after seven pars, got another at 18. He also birdied 2, 3 and 5 but suffered a bogey at No. 6. A birdie at the par-3 seventh gave him a share of the lead.