The duo outshone Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, with the World Number One posting a round of 75 and Woods starting his season with a 72.
Rose and Donaldson both holed bunker shots en route to establishing a one shot lead over Denmark's ThorbjÃƒÂ¸rn Olesen and Spain's Pablo LarrazÃƒÂ¡bal.
World Number Five Rose, making his debut in the event, opened with a bogey, but after holing out from the sand on the ninth hole he moved to four under par, and another unerringly accurate bunker shot on the next brought him level with Donaldson.
After that it was pars all the way for a highly satisfying opening to his 2013 campaign.
"I holed a very long putt on the fifth green," said Rose. "It must have been 50, 60 feet, so clearly a bonus there. And the bunker shot on nine was not your standard bunker shot either, it was a very, very tough shot, probably one that you only up and down 50 per cent of the time. So to make it was an extra bonus for sure.
"I think if I'm completely honest, I didn't have it completely under control today with the long game. It didn't feel perfect. I think it was the nature of the day, very difficult to hit every shot perfectly out there. I think it was the kind of day that you have to accept there were going to be some mistakes. I don't think you're going to get many clean rounds of golf out there.
"I think that's the most important thing to realise; it's the nature of the golf course this week. It's set up very, very difficult "“ the fairways are narrow. Clearly with a lot of crosswinds, the fairways are hard to hit and the rough is punishing.
"I just tried to keep up and downing it, but accept that there are going to be some mistakes this week."
Donaldson, who will make his Masters Tournament debut in April, made six birdies and a solitary bogey at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
"I played pretty well for most of the round, but there were times when it wasn't quite on and I made some good up and downs," said the 37 year old. "It was a matter of scoring well and keeping the momentum going."
Scores after round 1:
67 J Donaldson (Wal) , J Rose (Eng) ,
68 P LarrazÃƒÂ¡bal (Esp) , T Olesen (Den) ,
69 D Howell (Eng) , L Wen-Chong (Chn) , M Campbell (Nzl) , G Coetzee (RSA) , H Stenson (Swe) ,
70 D Willett (Eng) , J Singh (Ind) , J Luiten (Ned) , T Jaidee (Tha) , S Kjeldsen (Den) , G Fdez-CastaÃƒÂ±o (Esp) ,
71 A Sullivan (Eng) , J Edfors (Swe) , C Paisley (Eng) , M Kaymer (Ger) , L Slattery (Eng) , S Wakefield (Eng) , R Green (Aus) , R Santos (Por) , J SjÃƒÂ¶holm (Swe) , E Els (RSA) , B Grace (RSA) , P Casey (Eng) , J Dufner (USA) , G Mulroy (RSA) , G Maybin (Nir) , A Hansen (Den) ,
72 R Jacquelin (Fra) , T Woods (USA) , T BjÃƒÂ¶rn (Den) , F Andersson Hed (Swe) , M Manassero (Ita) , G Bourdy (Fra) , D Fichardt (RSA) , M Siem (Ger) , P Harrington (Irl) , R Bland (Eng) , R Gonzalez (Arg) , M Foster (Eng) , P Lawrie (Irl) , M Hoey (Nir) , C Lee (Sco) , K Horne (RSA) , P Price (Wal) , J Kruger (RSA) , A Tadini (Ita) , E Kofstad (Nor) , G Storm (Eng) ,
73 H Otto (RSA) , T Levet (Fra) , R Ramsay (Sco) , R Wattel (Fra) , M Ilonen (Fin) , F Molinari (Ita) , P Whiteford (Sco) , R Coles (Eng) , O Fisher (Eng) , S Webster (Eng) , J Quesne (Fra) , T Aiken (RSA) , A CaÃƒÂ±izares (Esp) , S Chowrasia (Ind) , C CÃƒÂ©vaÃƒÂ«r (Fra) , C Wood (Eng) , P Hanson (Swe) , M Baldwin (Eng) ,