Cavendish sprinted clear of André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) to put himself into the early lead in the four-day, WorldTour race.
Cavendish jumped on the wheel of Niccolo Bonifazio (Bahrain-Merida) as the Italian was the first to open up his sprint. As Bonifazio faded, Cavendish upped his pace and took the win by a convincing margin.
The stage was tinged with controversy after a crash occurred under the kilometre-to-go inflatable which brought down a number of riders, including sprinters Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott).
Welshman Owain Doull (Team Sky) was among those also involved in the crash, and came away with a cut along the length of his shoe which he attributed to being caused by a disc brake rotor on Kittel’s bike.
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) had also been involved in an earlier crash with in the final 5km, but very quickly regained contact with the back of the peloton after his team-mates fell back to pace him to the bunch.
Cavendish goes into the second of four stages on Friday with a four-second lead over Greipel, with Manuele Mori (UAE Team Emirates) in third at six seconds after scooping up an intermediate sprint bonus from the day’s escape group.
The 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour continues on Friday with stage two around Abu Dhabi city. Saturday’s stage is likely to be the decisive one for those riders with an eye on the general classification, as it features the only climb of the race – Jebel Hafeet. The race concludes on Sunday.