After bogeying the first hole, the Englishman went on a birdie blitz from the second to rocket up the leaderboard under overcast skies.
He found the Earth course's back nine tougher going as the sun burnt through the haze, however, ending the day with a five-under aggregate of 139 at the halfway stage following a one-over first-round 73 on Thursday.
The 35-year-old, winner of the European and U.S. money lists in 2011, was four shots behind leader Alejandro Canizares as the late starters reached the turn.
"Yesterday I walked off despondent - I felt my game was very close and I showed that today," Donald told reporters.
"I wasn't far away yesterday, I was just making some mental errors and pressing a little too hard. Today, I tried to be more patient and not think about the score so much.
"Usually it's pretty low scoring here, I certainly need to go low in the next two days."
Donald, 17th in the world rankings following a barren European Tour campaign, split with long-time swing coach Pat Goss earlier this year, recruiting Chuck Cook as a replacement in a bid to lengthen his driving, although Goss still acts as mentor and short game guru.
"It's very difficult when you've not been on a great run of form - you're just looking for that one good spell of golf to break you out of it," added Donald, who barely qualified for the 60-player tour finale.
"Hopefully today was a big step towards that for me. I knew when I made the coach switch it was going to be tough for a little bit. My goal is to ready for April next year and hopefully have a good 2014."
The desert event marks the climax of the European season and five players are in with a shout of winning the Race to Dubai, formerly known as the European Order of Merit.
Sweden's Henrik Stenson, England's Justin Rose and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell can all clinch the money list should they prevail over 72 holes in the desert.
Englishman Ian Poulter and Welshman Jamie Donaldson can also clinch the title if they win this tournament and Stenson finishes third or lower.
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