Zaha was born on 31 October 1950 in Baghdad. She grew up in one of Baghdad's first Bauhaus-inspired buildings during an era in which "modernism-connoted glamour and progressive thinking" in the Middle East. She studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut before moving to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where she met Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, and Bernard Tschumi. She worked for her former professors, Koolhaas and Zenghelis, at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands; she became a partner in 1977. Through her association with Koolhaas, she met Peter Rice, the engineer who gave her support and encouragement early on at a time when her work seemed difficult.
In 1980, she established her own London-based practice. During the 1980s, she also taught at the Architectural Association. Her architectural design firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, employs more than 350 people, and is headquartered in a Victorian former school building in Clerkenwell, London. The Iraqi-born architect is one of the most successful female architects in history and in 2016 became the first woman to receive the Royal Gold Medal for architecture in her own right.