Rutte often rides to work on his bike
Rutte often rides to work on his bike AFP

Best-known for riding his bike to work, often crunching an apple, Dutchman Mark Rutte will need all his sense of balance to steer NATO through one of its toughest-ever periods.

The outgoing Netherlands prime minister clinched on Thursday the race to become the next head of the alliance after sole challenger, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, pulled out.

Rutte, who stands 1.93 metres (six feet four inches) tall, has many nicknames including "Teflon Mark" due to his resilience to scandals, and "The Trump Whisperer" for his ability to manage Donald Trump.

The first quality made the 57-year-old his country's longest-serving leader, bouncing back after resigning in 2021 over a benefits scandal and eventually stepping down last year after a bitter row over asylum.

But the latter skill might have persuaded NATO leaders to rally around Rutte, as the alliance nervously eyes a potential second term for Trump, famously sceptical about US commitment to the group.

Rutte is widely credited with rescuing a 2018 NATO summit by talking Trump around on defence spending, and he showed typical Dutch directness by brazenly contradicting the president in the Oval Office.

In an exchange that later went viral, Trump claimed it would be "positive" whether or not the EU and the United States managed to clinch a trade deal.

The visiting Rutte scoffed out loud and interjected: "No! It's not positive. We have to work something out."

More recently, Rutte displayed more Dutch directness at the Munich Security Conference in February, saying Europe had to work "with whoever is on the dance floor."

"All that whining and moaning about Trump -- I hear that constantly over the last couple of days, let's stop doing that," he said.

Rutte has a "Mr Normal" image that could not be further removed from the bling-bling former president.

As well as cycling to meet foreign leaders, he is known to do his own shopping at the local supermarket and drives himself to meet the king in his humble Saab station wagon.

Another viral video showed Rutte spilling a cup of coffee at a government building and insisting on mopping it up himself, as cleaning staff applauded and he chuckled at his own clumsiness.

On Ukraine, the Netherlands signed a deal this year for two billion euros ($2.1 billion) of military assistance over 10 years, later adding an additional one billion.

Rutte also spearheaded the push to give Kyiv F-16 fighter jets, a decision described by President Volodymyr Zelensky as "historic" on a trip to the Netherlands.

"Ukraine must win this battle. For their security and ours," said Rutte, who is posed to be the fourth Dutchman to lead the NATO alliance.

Rutte's 14-year tenure as Dutch PM was marked by the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, with 196 Dutch among the 298 killed.

Speaking in Paris just two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Rutte described President Vladimir Putin in uncompromising terms: "cold-hearted, brutal, merciless."

As the second longest-serving EU leader after Hungary's Viktor Orban, Rutte's diplomatic skills came to the fore as he toured NATO capitals to drum up support.

He finally wore down main holdouts Turkey and Hungary, the latter still angry at Rutte, who said Budapest should not be in the EU after it passed a law banning the promotion of LGBTQ content to minors.

Rutte also infuriated some southern European countries with his hard line on bailouts, earning him yet another soubriquet: "Mr. No."

Domestically, he was tainted by many scandals, with the sudden collapse of his coalition last year over an asylum row sparking elections that resulted in victory for far-right leader Geert Wilders.

Arguably the most damaging came in 2021 when his government was forced to resign after thousands of parents -- many from ethnic minority backgrounds -- were falsely accused of childcare subsidy fraud.

The youngest of seven children, Rutte's father Izaak was a trader, while his mother Mieke was the sister of Izaak's first wife, who died in a Japanese internment camp in World War II.

He initially wanted to be a concert pianist, but after attending the prestigious Leiden University, he joined Anglo-Dutch consumer giant Unilever, including a stint at its peanut butter division, Calve.

He describes himself as a "man of habit and tradition" who has spent his whole life in The Hague and volunteers as a teacher.

His public image is perhaps best summed up by his regular hairdresser, Marco Rimmelzwaan, who said that "Mark doesn't like change, he always wants the same thing."

Rutte will be the fourth Dutchman to lead NATO
Rutte will be the fourth Dutchman to lead NATO AFP
Rutte earned the nickname 'The Trump Whisperer'
Rutte earned the nickname 'The Trump Whisperer' AFP