Having been a curious child, Raha Moharrak always dreamed of having challenging adventures and seeing the world. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in visual communications from the American University of Sharjah and started her career at a leading advertising agency. However, Raha’s life changed the day she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and challenged herself, her society and culture. It was this adventure that drove her to climb eight more summits, and eventually Mount Everest. On May 18, 2013, Raha made history by becoming the first Saudi woman to summit Mount Everest, a feat that turned her into an accidental role model.
Who did you want to be when you were a child? Did your aspirations change with the years?
“I wanted to be everything; I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be an astronaut, a scientist; I wanted to just live the fullest life I could in terms of adventure. I was always very hungry for that, so my aspirations changed but they were always the same, as in they were always grand. I always wanted to be something grand. For example, I never wanted to be a librarian or something like that. I’ve always wanted to be something that takes life to the next level. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, really, anything that’s just beyond the typical little girl’s dream. My father was always curious about ‘so what do you want to be today, what do you want to be this weekend’, and I always came up with different scenarios, but it was never boring, and it was never typical.”
Are you content with your life?
“I’m very content. I’ve always been a very content and thankful person, but still I have always had the sense of wanting more, the sense of being capable of doing more. I’ve always wanted to go to space; it’s been my dream since I was a little girl, so that’s something on my list. My greatest aspiration or my greatest adventure or challenge would be to find someone in life, or rather for them to find me, who could be my companion and would live the same type of an adventurous life with me. I’ve lived enough of a single life, being a solo traveller and adventurer. I’d love to finally meet my soul mate and go on to the next chapter of my life, my next journey and be a couple and do these things and continue to explore and be adventurous That’s my next step I guess.”
What else are you aspiring for, now that you have already accomplished so much?
“Yes, like I mentioned earlier, my aspirations changed per month; they continue to change and evolve but they all have the sense of adventure, they all have the sense of seeing the world, being out there, being bold and brave and finding the courage to go out, live and see. They did change of course, the more I grew the more I had an idea of certain limitations, but I always took these limitations as an invitation, and they never stopped me from doing what I had in mind. My aspirations continue to evolve, until this day they continue to evolve.”
What would you say is your most valuable asset, character trait or skill?
“My most valuable asset is that I’m extremely passionate and very determined and just overall curious. I take life in; I want to experience it all, and it’s because of how passionate I am and how stubborn I am that I got to where I am today. Being extremely stubborn makes me the woman I am today, but it’s also a very difficult trait to deal with, but yeah, I would say being very passionate. And also, I’m very lucky to have extremely understanding parents and lovely siblings; it is difficult being a Saudi woman who is different, but having parents and siblings like mine has really paved the way for me.”
Tell me one thing about yourself that most of your colleagues/peers don’t know.
“Lot of people don’t know that I’m severely dyslexic and I hate typing, and I find it very difficult to express myself. The other thing a lot of people don’t know is that I’m more or less deaf in my left ear, but I don’t really show it. My biggest fear is being fearless—I can’t find my fears and that makes me afraid. It makes me a bit reckless and it scares me because I will continue to try and find my limits, and if I don’t have them then I’m going to continue to do crazy things and push my limits. I think the only thing that scares me is being claustrophobic. Other than that, everything is fair game.”
Do you believe in the term work–life balance? If yes, how do you maintain it?
“Yes, I most definitely believe in that balance. But I’d be lying if I tell you that I have any idea if I have it in mine. My life is a mixture of climbing, training, socialising, design work, learning new things and spending time with family. It’s up in the air. I think the only constant in my life is training and my beach time, which is absolutely religious for me. I have to spend some time at the beach every week. But other than that everything just flows. I try as much as I can to manage things because I have design clients, I have classes and I’m doing my master’s, but life is life and it gets messy and I think that’s the beauty of it.”
Tell me about your career choice and path. Did you always know you would do what you are doing? Did you study for it, plan for it or was it accidental?
“I studied as a graphic designer and I have my bachelor’s degree from the American University of Sharjah so that is my career path; yes, I studied for it, I planned it and I always knew that I would have a hand in design. But my mountaineering career I completely and absolutely just stumbled upon. I didn’t plan for it; it was an absolute accident. It started off as a curious thing and it ended up completely overtaking my life. I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to actually just start. I started three years ago and now I’m down to my last summit. I think I’ve done 13 or 14, but it was completely not planned.”
Did you face any setbacks? How did you overcome them?
“Yes, of course. Being a Saudi girl, coming from my culture, it is difficult to break barriers. That too allowing me to do the one thing that few men would ever dream of, which is climbing the highest peaks in each continent. So yes, I had a lot of negative feedback and few setbacks, and I had to convince my family to let me go initially but that’s all part of it—all part of this journey that I have found myself in. I have had to fight for it and that’s why it means so much to me. I overcame it just by simply believing that I deserved it and that I am capable of doing these things, so why not. I don’t believe that the colour of my passport should dictate my capabilities or my limitations, and that’s what I think made me or drove me to overcome all these.”
What inspires you to do the work you do?
“Ironically, what inspires me to climb and to be adventurous and outgoing are the limitations that were put on me. It really enraged and annoyed me that the fact that I am a Saudi girl dictated who I was, where I would end up or what I was capable of doing. So, the box that I was supposed to fit in was actually what pushed me; the limitations and the stereotypes are the things that catapulted me to wanting to do something new and different. It was not only to change people’s perspective, but also to prove to myself that I’m capable of doing anything I set my heart and mind to do.”
As a very successful and internationally recognised woman, what do you consider to be the most enjoyable and most challenging aspects of your job?
“There are so many things I enjoy about what I do. On a personal level, I really can’t count the ways in which mountaineering, climbing and being an adventurer has enriched me. But I think the most enjoyable thing is seeing other women’s reactions towards my success. It’s been beautiful seeing all these young ladies come up to me and tell me their dreams, their aspirations and their most private thoughts. It is so rewarding to have them tell me that they can go after their dream because of what I have done. The challenge, like I mentioned earlier, is the cultural limitation. It was like committing social suicide when I suddenly decided to climb at my age. The challenge was actually letting people see me in a different light and get over it. I mean, yeah sure I’m a Saudi woman who climbs, but that’s not the end of the world.”
What is your personal leadership style and philosophy for success?
“As for my personal leadership style, I don’t think I have one. I’m not a preacher. I never set out to be this role model, which is a huge responsibility so I don’t really have a tactic in terms of my leadership style. I guess if anything, it’s leading by example. You need to have conviction. You need to have the courage to voice your opinion, to voice your dreams. We come from a culture where it’s not even accepted for girls to say what they’re thinking and what they’re dreaming, so I think my philosophy is to be bold and brave in pursuit of your dreams.”
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
“This is a very difficult question to answer because every leader has their own characteristics, and I guess having conviction, having heart, is vital. Believing in yourself is really crucial. Among other things, you really need to be true to yourself. In order for people to follow you and to believe in you, you need to believe in yourself, so I think that’s one of the most important things they should have.”
How has your life experience made you the role model you are today?
“This role model position that I occupy was a coincidence. I stumbled upon it and I never really expected to have such a responsibility one day. But you do things in life for a reason. My life led me to this point and every single step I took whether intentional or unintentional led me here so I guess it was meant to be. I never really thought I would end up being a role model, so it was all just right place right time type of situation.”
Who inspired or supported you the most when you were growing up, and how?
“Without a doubt, my parents. My father has been and always will be my heart and soul. He stood by me when a lot of people opposed him. A lot of people fought him for the way he raised me and the way he’s been treating me, so my parents without a doubt are my greatest supporters and they really inspired me to be who I am today. Without them I would never ever have achieved a quarter of what I have. I always thank God for giving me such amazing parents. They were really burdened by such an eccentric daughter. I know I’m difficult but they handled me with grace and they never once told me to change so, hands down, my parents are everything to me.”
How do you see the current status of Arab women as opposed to 20 years ago or 100 years ago? How do you see it evolving?
“Yes, we came a long way in 20 years but I really think we’ve just reached the outskirts – the surface of what we’re capable of doing. We have so much potential; whether it’s 20 years—compared to 20 years ago or 100 years ago—we’ve come a long way, but there is still a longer way to go and it’s up to us, the older generation, to be the pioneers to change mentalities, to break barriers and to open doors for the newer generation.”
What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?
“I remember how it was as a 14-year-old; I was a bit unsure of myself. Not unsure in the sense that I didn’t know whom I was, I always knew who I was; I was very lucky that way. But I would just tell her to take it all in, experience it all, live it all, cherish the great moments. The really bad moments will make you stronger and at some points 10, 20, 30 years from now you’ll look back and see all the scars on your legs and the bumps and bruises on your arms and you’ll smile because you’re going to have amazing stories to tell. You have so much potential, so stop feeling like you’re trapped just because you were born in a certain culture and a certain way. You’re capable of doing great things; you just need to have the courage, and be brave enough to dream them.
Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future is published by Motivate and is available at all good retail outlets and booksarabia.com